Friday, August 31, 2012

The 7-Elevens in Taiwan are a necessity - not just a convenience

(The 7-Eleven that I used nearly eveyday in Taipei)

My wife and I recently spent a month in Taiwan. I gave some lectures at the University and helped to co-teach a course titled Biodiversity, Agriculture and Culture of Taiwan. We had never been to Taiwan before, so we were not completely sure what to expect about finding the basic necessities of life: coffee, beer, Twizzlers. Within hours of arriving, we were told not to worry about any of this — just go to any 7-Eleven convenience store.

We found the 7-Eleven nearest our hotel room, and that was not difficult. With nearly 5,000 stores in this small country, we came to realize that in the capital, Taipei, there must be a 7-Eleven every couple of blocks. In fact, several times we saw 7-Elevens on opposite corners of the same intersection. That’s right, two stores immediately across the street from one another. Was my mind deceiving me, was I seeing double, had I entered some parallel universe without knowing it? Could the coffee be better in one of the stores than in the other? Were Twizzlers the same price in each? Too many stores, not enough time!

Every morning, I literally skipped to OUR 7-Eleven, bought two American-style coffees (which I learned to order in Mandarin), a couple of hard-boiled eggs that were prepared in a bath of salty tea water (delicious) and, voila, breakfast was ready. After a while, the clerks recognized me (not difficult to remember a white-haired gringo in a Taiwanese convenience store), so they began drawing my coffee before I even placed my order.

But these “convenience” stores, which are spotless, attractive, and nicely lit, offer much more than my necessities of life. You can take your dirty laundry to a 7-Eleven in Taiwan, they send it out, and you return to pick it up. You can order items from and have them delivered to your local 7-Eleven, where you retrieve them. This apparently saves the delivery person from trying to locate your apartment among the sea of apartments in Taipei, and from solving the problem of where to leave the item when you are not at home. You can pay traffic tickets there and, believe it or not, you can pay your federal income tax there if it is not above a certain amount. These stores are also a social gathering place in the evening; all seats are taken and it is standing room only after dark. What more they offer, I’m not sure. Maybe you can find a wife or husband through the place rather than spending time with an online matchmaking service. The possibilities are limitless.  And did I mention that 7-Elevens in Taiwan are open 24 hours a day?

Of course, this all seems in contrast to the image most of us have of 7-Elevens in the U.S. I don’t go to ours after dark, because I don’t want to interrupt a robbery in progress. Ours are not as clean as those in Taiwan. Ours don’t have tea eggs. I can’t even remember where the 7-Elevens are in my town; in Taiwan, you simply walk a block and there one is.

So my impression of this Japanese-based company has changed for the better. People in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, and Thailand have appreciated the value of 7-Elevens for some time. Asians rely on them, they use them daily, and they seem proud to have them in their country. Taiwan also has Starbucks, but it seems that visiting one is considered a luxury, while the 7-Eleven is the staff of life.

Our 7-Elevens seem not as popular as they are in Taiwan. Maybe we have too many choices in the U.S., and we can drive as far from home as we need to get to any store we want. Maybe the name “7-11” is off-putting, because it reminds us of a casino, and who wants to go up against house odds when buying something you are going to put in your mouth. There are many possible reasons why 7-Elevens are not as popular in the states. But I’m putting my money on the fact that ours don’t have tea eggs.

Article first published as The 7-Elevens in Taiwan Are a Necessity - Not a Convenience on Technorati.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

DrTom's Youtube videos

The following DrTom videos are available on Youtube:

1.  Lecture to the Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti, given Dec 2011, titled "My life as a field biologist: from deer to digital book in 40 short years".
          A summary of DrTom's 40-year career as a field biologist.

2.  "Impromptu interview at the slide"
          DrTom has some fun at the playground while being interviewed by his son.

3.  "Cornell University's sensational professor, Tom Gavin!"
          DrTom on a field trip with his Field Biology class, where a student filmed his "choir" practice with students.

I hope you enjoy these.  Stay tuned for updates.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I believe in the bucket

(Addressing the porcelain goddess.  Do you sometimes feel like this guy looks?)

Vomiting is not one of my favorite activities.  I'd rather spend my time doing something more constructive than emptying my stomach via my mouth.  But there are times when your body can not be deterred.  When my brothers and I were ill as kids, we would commonly lie in the living room on the couch and watch tv until the disease passed.  My mother always put a bucket next to the couch in case we had to barf.  This was not exactly the same as "praying to the porcelain princess", but it was effective.  Many a messy cleanup was avoided because of this vomitus catchment that was strategically placed within hurling distance.

The first time I was ill with nausea after I was married, I called to my wife to bring the bucket.  My wife did not grow up with this bucket thing in her home, and so she laughed hysterically at me for thinking I could not make it to the bathroom when the time was ripe.  I pleaded, but to no avail.  Some Emergency Room RNs (which my wife was at that time) have little empathy for those of us with sensitive stomachs.  If it's not a heart attack or an amputated limb, get over it!

Then, in the summer of 1969 when I was stationed with the army in Baltimore, my mother and her good friend Rose came to visit us in our small apartment for a few days.  We decided to drive to D.C. to see the sights and to have lunch.  I can't for the life of me remember what it was we ate, but on the hour drive back to Baltimore my mother and I got violently ill.  Obviously this was food poisoning, although my wife ate what I had and Rose ate what my mother had and neither of them got sick.

The Baltimore-Washington Parkway was a busy highway that day, as usual, and there was no easy place to stop or pull over.  My mother was in the back seat with Rose and I was in the front while my wife drove.  My mother and I both felt as though we were going to heave any minute.  What to do?  What to do?  Then, my mother discovered some old newspapers in the back seat.  In what was a more creative move than making an origami stork, and far more practical, my mother quickly rolled up some newspaper into a very tight cone with no hole at the bottom.  She made two of them, and passed one to me in the front.  For the rest of the trip home, my mother and I held this ridiculous 18-inch long funnel of newspaper in front of our faces with our chins perched on the edge of our respective cones, and braced for what we thought was the inevitable.  My wife, the empathetic nurse, and Rose were laughing so hard that Management almost drove the car off the highway twice, as mother and son buried their faces in yesterday's sports page.

We finally managed to pull up in  front of our apartment located in a rather large complex, having held the problem internally for what seemed like hours.  My mother rushed inside to lie down on our bed, and immediately called for the bucket, but I couldn't make it.  I held on to a small tree in the yard and began heaving violently, all the while making a roar loud enough to cause the starlings in the tree above me to drop to the ground as if dead.  Neighbors began looking out of their windows on all sides, assuming that the drunken soldier was now paying the price for a well-lubricated lunch.  I had no energy to explain, and all I could think to do was to put as much distance between me and that little tree as possible.  In hindsight, it was a good thing I stayed outside to "pull the trigger", because we only had one bucket in those days, and that one was now assigned to my mother.

People have different thresholds that need crossing before they "liquidate their assets", but my advice is simple.  Lie down flat on a bed or couch when you are really nauseous, avoid watching the Republican presidential debates, and have lots of buckets on hand.  This strategy should get you through.

(For an extensive list of vomit names, go here.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When "definite" pronouns become "indefinite"

(My grammatically astute dog, Zeus, gave me a knowing wink as my wife let fly with another mysterious pronoun.)

Last night, Management said to me "Why do you think SHE does that?"

I looked around the room to see if there was a SHE anywhere in sight.  None.  Our dog Zeus is a male.  Our daughter left home 20 years ago.

I replied: "Who are you talking about?"
Mgt.: "Angelina Jolie"
Me: "Why does she do what, and what are you talking about?"
Mgt: "Why doesn't she talk to HIM?"
Me: "What do you mean?  I saw Angelina with Brad Pitt at the Golden Globe Awards on tv the other night, and they seemed  fine with one another."
Mgt.: "No.  Why doesn't she talk to her father, Jon Voight?"
Mgt. again: "You know.  I really love that man."
Me: "I had no idea you liked Voight that much.  He is a good actor."
Mgt.: "No. I love Obama.  He is such a great family man."
Mgt. again, as she stares at the floor on the other side of the kitchen: "Isn't he cute?"
Me: "Well, I like the guy, but I don't think of my President as cute."
Mgt.: "No silly.  Zeus.  The way he puts his head on his crossed paws and watches us talk."
Me: I looked at Zeus and I swear he gave me a knowing wink; this IS an articulate dog with a pretty good command of the English language.

What the hell!!  This is no way to live.  Constantly having to guess to whom the pronoun refers in every sentence.  What ever happened to nouns, or better yet, proper nouns, like a person's name?  Management is trying to have a conversation with me, and complains that I don't talk enough.  But this "conversation" becomes an interrogation of her by me to keep my head above water, as the "its", "his's", and "they's" fly about the room like confused moths searching for the sun.  And once I figure out which SHE or HE Management is talking about, she shifts gears and is on to a new set of celebrities, or politicians, or relatives to whom she is referring.  This is a real problem, especially as I continue to age and my brain cells disappear or harden into little nuggets.

So, more often than not, when Management asks me "Why is HE doing that?", I simply say with all the earnestness I can muster, "I really don't know honey.  Life is a mystery."  Of course, Management doesn't begin to appreciate fully how much of a mystery it really is to those of us on the receiving end of those damn indefinitely defined definite pronouns.

(For a classic and comical rendition of the pronoun problem, starring Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, go to this Youtube video.)