Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Men with Tools

So let's say that you've just bought a house, and you like this house a lot, but you really think that you want just a little bit more to make you happy: you want to add a shower to the upstairs half-bath, which will make it either a full bath or a three-quarter bath, depending on some criterion that I am unable to determine. Anyway, you're a homeowner with needs, so what are you going to do? Right: go to the Internet.

Because there's a site for that, don't you know. Maybe seven years ago and then again five years ago I needed to move, and I wasn't going to rent a truck and blackmail or bribe my friends, so I found a local website what you were looking for and within minutes, you'd have men calling you up and offering to help you out, asking you how many men and what sort of equipment you needed to procure satisfaction of your very reasonable needs. It all reminded me of something else, though I could never quite put my finger on what that was.

Anyway, it turns out that there's a similar site for guys in need of a little home improvement assistance. You go to the site, you navigate to the M4MBathroom Renovations section, and you post what you're looking for:
I want to add a shower to the upstairs half-bath in the house I just bought. The house is a Cape with a slanted roof, and to make room for the shower, it will probably be necessary to expand the bathroom about 18 inches into the upstairs bedroom. It will probably also be necessary to move the sink somewhat, and I may want to replace the sink. I am hoping to find someone to frame and install the new shower and do the plumbing. I can finish the walls and install a new floor myself after the shower is installed. One of the prefabricated shower stalls (about 36 x 36) would be fine. Email contact is preferred, but phone contact is fine after 5.

Then you sit back and wait (not for very long) and OMG, y'all, you start getting emails and calls from eager men all over the area. They all want to come over and "give you a free estimate." (Exact quote. I am not using scare quotes. I never use scare quotes. I'm hurt that you even had to ask.) Unfortunately, most of them are only free during the day, when you're at work, (And that also reminds me of something: it's just beyond my grasp, though.) but a few of them say they can show up at your place early in the morning or late in the day, though they might have to be quick. So you arrange for these guys to show up, carefully staggering the times so that they don't find out about each other. They probably know they're in competition, and you know you're going to have to disappoint most of them, but you want to put off that disappointment as long as possible while still encouraging them to give you the very best that they have to offer.

But then there's drama. Like maybe you arrive at the house just before your 8 am appointment, and the phone rings, and the guy who's supposed to be there says that he's running behind because traffic is really bad, but that he'll be there by 8:45. 8:45? Ha! But your Mama didn't raise you to be rude, so you explain to him that 8:45 is too late for you this morning and that he should call later to reschedule. Depending on how many other guys schedule appointments, and how many actually show up, maybe you'll make another appointment with him. Maybe you won't. Maybe he won't even call again. Maybe he really was stuck in traffic, or maybe he decided that your project wasn't big enough or attractive enough for him. In any case, all of your excitement has changed to a combination of disappointment and pique that leaves you wondering whether your needs will ever get met.

Inevitably, though, you try again. You're only human, after all, and sooner or later you have to figure that you'll find the right man for the job. Or at least that you won't find him if you don't look.

The federal government says that I'm a first-time homebuyer, but I have the strongest sense of deja vu. Why is that? I reckon the answer will come to me sooner or later.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mas Feliz

This weekend, a friend that b&c made while doing some consulting abroad was visiting us from Colombia. As with all of b&c's gay male friends from foreign countries, M. is both charming and cute1. I considered asking b&c why he went so against type in choosing me as his partner, but I didn't want to be accused of being a wag, though now I think about it, I'm a bit sad that no one has ever accused me of being a wag. I am often accused of being a smartass, and I generally take that as praise, but I'm holding out for wag. Perhaps "wag" has fallen out of fashion, so perhaps I need to do something to encourage its usage. Perhaps the best way to be accused of being a wag is to accuse others of the same thing. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Not coincidentally, when we were discussing our favorite songs Sunday night, M. pulled up the Nat King Cole version of "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas," and I in turn showed him a scene from Strictly Ballroom featuring the Doris Day version. I will leave it to others to decide which is better: they are both terrific. I wouldn't be able to choose, and I'm glad I don't have to.

It was nice to have music (and YouTube) with which to communicate because M. speaks little English, and I speak even less Spanish. B&c's Spanish is better than mine, but it's still not great, so there was a good deal of trying to find comprehensible synonyms, combined with a good deal of passing around the dictionary. And there were plenty of times -- mostly when we were at the dinner table having a third glass of wine -- when I decided that getting the general sense of the conversation was sufficient. Sometimes too much comprehension is a bad thing. I am reminded, in particular, of a fellow bass from my choir who left the Catholic church after they started celebrating the mass in English: he no longer had plausible theological deniability.

Anyway, we were at table Saturday evening and M. mentioned that a survey had found that Colombians were the third happiest people in the world. I had always believed that the happiest people were Western Europeans, particularly Scandinavians2, but if M. is at all representative, then Colombians are a very happy people. Also, well dressed.

Unsurprisingly, there's no universal consensus on which country has the happiest people. I'm guessing that whatever M. read that said that Colombians are #3 was based on this, but there are many other surveys. There are also many different ways of measuring happiness, some of which attempt to factor in objective metrics. I guess some people can't just take someone's word for it that he's happy. Which sounds a lot like imposing your own definition of happiness on other people in an attempt to convince yourself that you (or your countrymen) are happier than you think you are, but whatever.

There doesn't seem to be any way to measure happiness that puts the U.S. in the top spot, but perhaps Americans are only happy when they're unhappy. Or at least when we have things to strive for. "Things" being the critical word there. It seems perfectly reasonable to be happiest when you're striving for, say, literacy in another language, or the addition of another third to the top of your vocal range (as if), but I can't help recalling how, nearly forty years ago, my mother told my father that if he got her a piano, she would never want anything else.

She was mistaken.

Anyway, yesterday I realized what is said to be the American dream when I closed on my house. I was on my way to the settlement when I got a call from my sister telling me that my mother's doctor had decided that my mother is not an immediate danger to herself or anyone else -- at least as long as my father stays safely in Texas. I was as elated about that as I was about closing on the house. Certainly, one happiness was relief and the other was joy, but if you owe someone $100,000, you probably shouldn't care too much whether you win that much in the lottery or your creditor forgives the debt. Both, by the way, are equally taxable events, though there are a number of exceptions to the inclusion of cancellation of indebtedness income under Internal Revenue Code §108, especially if the debt is on your principal residence.

Earlier in the week, Mom's doctor had been recommending that one of us come down to Florida and ask a judge to have Mom committed for a psychiatric evaluation, and I had been planning to fly down next Monday and file the papers at the courthouse. It's a good thing I had to wait: I had resigned myself to having to do it, but I was still dreading it. Mom's doctor feared that she might be bipolar as well as unstable and none of my sister's or my conversations with Mom had given any of us any impression other than crazy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the very first song I'd pulled up on YouTube when M. and I were discussing favorite songs was Patsy Cline's version of "Crazy." So far, my mother's crazy hasn't done anything to lessen my enjoyment of Patsy's, and we must pray that doesn't change. If I were to lose any of my enjoyment of Patsy Cline's music, well, the terrorists would already have won.

Interestingly, M. said that neither terrorism nor drug concerns have made travelling to the U.S. especially difficult for him. He did say that Colombians flying into Miami are routinely subjected to extra cocaine-related security but that he has found flying into Houston (which is also cheaper) or L.A. hasn't caused the same problems. I offer no opinion as to whether the difference in levels of security is either because of or the the reason for the nonexistence of CSI: Houston. On the other hand, because much cocaine is, apparently, smuggled within the bodies of travellers and because the people who swallow it prior to travelling avoid drinking soda so as not to rupture the membranes separating the swallowed cocaine from their innards, M. was once searched because he doesn't care for Coca-Cola. One can only imagine what would have happened to him if he'd turned down apple pie.

1Is it wrong to want to learn Spanish mostly because the men are so attractive? I don't think so.

2As it happens, according to that survey, the happiest countries are Iceland and Denmark, so my assumptions were reasonable.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

At Home with the Oblonskys

My cell phone rang yesterday, and I could see that it was my sister calling, and I thought, "Oh just give it up already" because I assumed that she was going to bug me, yet again, about coming to her house in Texas for Thanksgiving. She had been campaigning for some time, with the first invitation coming perhaps six weeks ago. There had been follow up emails with details of low, low airfares, and then, less than a week ago, another phone call which included the following conversation.

TED: It's just such a long way, and I'm not even sure the girls can make it.

Sister of TED: Well, I know, but Mom and Dad are coming from Florida and [TED's older brother] and his family are coming from [whatever Godforsaken corner of Texas they live in], so I thought if we were all here, we could get a big family picture taken for Mom and Dad.

TED: How about if you photoshop us in?

SoTED: I don't think so.

TED: You're right. YFU and EFU will never pose for a picture. You'll have to photoshop in two other children.

SoTED: TED, stop. I was talking to Dad, and he said that he heard Mom on the phone telling someone that since Thanksgiving is just a couple of days after their fifty-eighth anniversary, and since we never did anything big for their fiftieth anniversary, she thought that we were planning something special.

TED: Well. That's transparent, isn't it?

SoTED: I just think we should all get together again, before it's too late.

TED: Yeah, God forbid we should miss out on the opportunity to celebrate fifty-eight years of constant bickering.

SoTED: That is not very nice.

TED: But it's true, right?

SoTED: That is not very nice.

TED: You know, I remember eight years ago, when [TED's older brother] was living in Pennsylvania, and we went up there for Thanksgiving, and we were all saying what we were thankful for, and I said that I was thankful that Mom and Dad went on a cruise for their golden anniversary and we didn't have to plan anything.

SoTED: You're terrible.

TED: Tell me you didn't think the same thing.

SoTED: Did I mention that you're terrible?

So I wasn't all that thrilled about the prospect of having further guilt applied, but then I remembered that over the weekend, I'd had a conversation with EFU:
TED: How much time do you get for Thanksgiving?

EFU: Just the weekend, but I assume that you'll insist that I come down.

TED: Well, I really hope you will. Your aunt is trying to guilt me into bringing you and YFU down to Texas for Thanksgiving.

EFU: Noooooo!

TED: Well, she says that Grandpa says that Grandma said she thought we were doing something special for their fifty-eighth birthday.

EFU: Well, that's transparent.

TED: OMG, I am so proud to be your father.

EFU: Whatever. I really don't want to go to Texas. You're a better cook than she is.

TED: Finally, someone with reasonable priorities.
EFU: Can I bring one of my roommates home with me for Thanksgiving? Otherwise she'll be here all alone.

TED: Oh sweet! An ironclad excuse not to go to Texas!

EFU: Right, but can we act like we're inviting her just because she's my friend?

TED: Whatever.

So I figured it was safe to take my sister's call and that it was a good time to tell her that I was surely not coming for Thanksgiving.

But what she really wanted to tell me was that she had had a call from my parents' cleaning lady, who is also their friend and attends the same church they do. She'd called to tell my sister that she had taken my father to her home because she was afraid that my mother was going to hurt him.

Apparently, my father had expressed similar fears to his doctor, who had been bound by law to inform the sheriff about his concerns. The sheriff had come to the house to follow up earlier yesterday. Fortunately, my mother had been out at the time; otherwise, they'd have surely ended up on the eleven o'clock news. I wonder what my mother's verse of "Cell Block Tango" would be.

My sister arranged for the cleaning lady to take my father to his doctor's appointment the next day (today) and then to take him to the airport so that he could fly to Austin, where my sister would pick him up and take him to her home.

My sister, not surprisingly, was very upset about the whole situation. I told her that she had done exactly the right thing, and that seemed to make her feel better. Then she said, "Well, I'm taking care of Dad. I guess that means you get to take care of Mom." Thank God she was laughing. (I had a moment of abject terror during which I imagined my mother showing up at my new house. Is giving your mother a fake address considered bad form?)

I had hoped to ignore the inevitable fallout from my father's departure for as long as possible (best case scenario: eighteen hours), but b&c told me that I should probably at least call to check on my mother and make sure that her recent change in behavior wasn't due to the onset of dementia. I can remember my mother throwing things at my father as long as forty years ago, so I'm not sure about the whole recent-change-in-behavior thing, but I figured he was right, so I called Mom. She had no idea where Dad was and didn't seem overly concerned about his absence. So without giving her any details that would enable her to hunt him down, I told her that Dad was on his way to my sister's house. It never takes much to set Mom off, so I got the expected rant from her, but at least I got the fifteen-minute version instead of the half-hour version. It seemed best just to let her talk, and when she started saying that my father had abandoned her and that she'd never abandoned him, I deemed it wiser not to mention all of the times that she disappeared for days or weeks at a time when I was a teenager.

When I got off the phone last night, I remembered the opening line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And I was briefly very pleased, thinking, "Well, finally we get to be different." But then I realized that I'm probably very slow. Surely we're not suddenly an unhappy family. We must have always been an unhappy family, and I was simply too thick to recognize it. (Either that, or happy family/unhappy family is a false dichotomy, but that's unfathomable since it would mean that I'd have to abandon this whole line of thought.) And that troubled me because if it's possible to be an unhappy family and not know it, does that mean you could be an unhappy person and not know it? I mean, Mom's an unhappy person, and not only does she know it, but she makes sure everyone else knows it, but that doesn't mean that it's not possible to be unhappy without knowing it. What if I'm going along, thinking I'm a happy person, but I'm actually miserable without knowing it? You will probably spot the cognitive flaws in that line of thinking, but parents can make you a little bit crazy.

It's been a long time since I read Anna Karenina, and whenever someone brings it up, my initial response is to think to myself, "Oh, shit. Is she the one who eats poison or the one who throws herself under a train?" European novels, whether Russian or French, about bored women who take lovers and later commit suicide have never had much resonance with me, but then I have never much thought about them in the context of my mother. (Now that I think about it, I honestly don't remember whether I've read Madame Bovary, though I'm pretty sure I saw an adaptation of it once on PBS.) Anna Karenina, as it happens, is only secondarily about her story. The primary plot -- the one that ends happily -- is more engaging. Perhaps Tolstoy chose the title so as not to give the lie to his first sentence, or perhaps it was a simple recognition that stories of unhappiness are generally more compelling than stories of happiness. That we find unhappiness more compelling likely says something ugly enough about the human psyche that we're better off not exploring the phenomenon too closely.

I'll admit that after I got the call from my sister midday yesterday, I was pretty beat up and had to close my office door for ten minutes or so. And later in the day, at the beginning of a long and brisk walk, I wallowed briefly in the unfairness of the fact that I have only just gotten to the point where my children have started to behave like adults, and now my parents started to behave like children.

Ultimately, though, I'm nothing like my mother, who has wallowed in perceived unfairness for at least the last forty years, and probably much longer. Her unhappiness is extremely regrettable, but it has long been obvious to me that she cultivates it. There's not much that I can do about her unhappiness except not to emulate it, and not to burden my own children. She has taught me much by way of counterexample.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Apparently, Outlook doesn't put up with passive-aggressive behavior. When someone at work sends me an invitation to a meeting, and I don't respond to it either way, it still goes on my calendar. Worse, people expect me to show up. "Invitation" seems like the wrong word: it's really more of a summons. I don't want to attend about ninety percent of the meetings that someone wants me to attend, but I rarely have a compelling reason not to. Or, at least, it's not compelling to the person who invited me. I consider the very nature of most meetings a compelling reason not to attend them. If someone invited you to a public execution, you could probably get away with saying, "Oh, thanks, but no. Capital punishment is really not my thing," but you can't say the same thing about meetings. And how is that fair? Meetings and public executions are equally objectionable for all but one of the participants.

Anyway, this morning my calendar kept warning me that I had a meeting with our director of human resources to go over the results of my Predictive Index survey, and, boy howdy did I not want to attend that meeting, even though there was only one other participant and even though it was scheduled to take place in my office, so I wouldn't even have to get out of my chair.

I was forced at gunpoint encouraged to take the PI survey six or so weeks earlier. The PI survey consists of two identical screens of adjectives. On the first screen, you're meant to check those that describe how you're expected to behave by others. On the second screen, you're meant to check those that you believe truly describe you. I immediately saw problems with both the methodology and the choice of words. But I filled the survey out with all the attention that I thought it deserved (maybe even more), and, well, that's ninety seconds of my life that I'll never get back.

About a month ago, I got an email with the results, and, well, you know how you hear people talking about this or that diagnostic test (a lot of the people I go to church with, for example, are government workers, and if I hear one more person try to describe another person by reference to his or her Meyers-Briggs profile, I may plotz) and how the results described them exactly? Well, I started reading my results, and I was going, yeah, yeah, WTF? oh hell no! It was a fascinating mixture of spot on and laughably wrong.

We'd been told that the PI would be used as a screening tool for new hires and as a management tool for existing employees. I'm really the only person in my organization who does what I do. I like what I do, and they would have a hell of a time finding anyone else who does what I do, so my job isn't changing significantly any time in the next decade, but I was a little annoyed at the prospect of such a wrong-headed analysis being in my personnel file, so I printed out the index and took it to my boss and said, "Does this sound like me?" And he said, "yeah, yeah, WTF? oh hell no!" But he mostly just thought it was funny.

I told him, "If anyone tries to manage me using this, there is going to be a problem." And he replied, "You can be managed?" And then he laughed at me again, and I went back to my office.

The HR director laughed today when she asked me what I thought of my PI survey results and I said, "I think it's a bunch of hooey." Then she told me that the PI is approved as a tool by the EEOC, which to me says not that it isn't hooey but that it's no more or less hooey for any particular classification of people. Then she went over the charts with me. Sadly, I have forgotten most of what she said. I got momentarily excited when she told me I was a "high C," but after she left I tested myself, and my vocal range had not in fact expanded. Typical.

Later, she said that when we were discussing my results, she could see that I agreed with some of them, and I said, "Well, if you throw a thousand darts, some of them are going to hit," and she laughed and said, "I knew this conversation was going to be interesting." Talking with an HR director is much like talking with a fundamentalist minister: no amount of well-explained doubt will shake the faith of either of them. I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid, and my failure to imbibe is something that anyone who knows me would have predicted, even though according to the PI, I should be lapping it up.

By the way -- and à propos of nothing -- it occurs to me that the problem isn't that you can't convey irony on the Internet. The problem is that most people are either too dumb or too mean spirited to perceive it.

Even more tangentially, does anyone know of any free room layout software? I've been using the free evaluation copy of SmartDraw, but I'm really not willing to drop $200, no matter how much fun it is moving virtual sofas around the virtual living room.

The house closing is now twelve days away, and I find myself behaving in unpredictable ways. Have you ever heard of badly referred pain? Badly referred pain is pain that presents at some distance from the affected organ. One most often hears about the concept in gall bladders. Your gall bladder might be inflamed, and you might eat or drink something with too much fat in it, and the resulting annoyance of your gall bladder might manifest itself as a pain pretty much anywhere in your torso. Or maybe your extremities. Or maybe in your neighbor's cat, I don't know.

Anyway, I've begun to think that the stress from a home acquisition is manifesting itself on other stressors of greater or lesser magnitude so that, for example, I'm finding work very stressful just now, even though it's probably no worse than most other years at the same season. Also, there's a slight chance that I may occasionally be short tempered at inappropriate times.

There's no point in being stressed about the home purchase. I have occasionally wondered whether it's the right thing to do right now, but I always come down very firmly on the side of do it and do it now. And it's going pretty well. I finished arranging the homeowner's insurance this morning, so there are no immediate tasks left for me to complete. I will have to move at some point, of course, and before that I'm sure that there are other hoops to be thrown through, but the closing is in twelve days, and as far as I know, the only thing left for me to do is to show up with a large check and sign lots of documents, and there appears to be no shortage of people to tell me either where to sign or the size of the check.

Still, it's a lot of uncertainty. I've run the numbers, more than once, so I know I can afford the house, but it's a big financial commitment, and a significant majority of the money that used to go into my savings accounts will now go directly to the mortgage and other home expenses. And then there's the whole aloneness thing. I very much want to live by myself (or, rather, the combination that I'll have of by myself and with the kids), but there's always that fear that you'll wake up one night and realize that what you thought was badly referred gall bladder pain is more likely a ruptured appendix or perforated ulcer and that the difference between screaming in pain and being rushed to the hospital by your partner (or an ambulance that he's summoned) and finding your cell phone, which could be God knows where, and summoning the ambulance yourself might be the difference between a painful recovery and eternal slumber. That fear's probably even less reasonable than the financial ones, but it exists nonetheless.

I don't fear loneliness per se. It's not my nature to feel lonely, I'm extremely busy, and I expect that, if anything, my technical singleness will encourage me to spend more time with my non-b&c friends. And I'll probably still spend a significant amount of time with b&c, unless he wises up and sells the exurban house and relocates to Tuscany, the way any sensible retiree who's fluent in Italian would. But he's somewhat set in his ways, so I reckon he'll be around for the foreseeable future. I hope that he'll start dating again very soon. I hate the idea of any dating that involves me, but I love hearing about other people's dating disasters. The successes are not nearly so entertaining, but I reckon that the ratio is at least seven-to-one in favor of disaster, so I'm likely in for a year or two of good stories before he settles down again. Unless he wises up and imports a hausboy from the former German Democratic Republic, the way any sensible retiree who's fluent in German would.

Anyway, between the new house, the moving, the end of my relationship (also the guilt at being so excited about the new house; I don't have a good reason to feel guilty about it, but I was raised Southern Baptist, so guilt happens), the health issues with my father, and the long hours at work, I haven't been sleeping so well, and I find myself forgetting things. For example, I apparently, some time ago, arranged to play bridge this weekend with a couple of my longest-standing gay friends and some guy I've never met. And this totally slipped my mind until one of my friends called me yesterday to remind me, so I also, earlier this week, made arrangements to meet a buddy of mine for dinner and a movie, at the very same time.

And oh the regret, the remorse, the chagrin. There is nothing I fear more than being rude, and, really, double booking social engagements is something that you might expect from, say, people hooking up on craigslist (not that I would know, of course, but I've heard stories), but it is not something one does to one's friends. No wire hangers double booking ever! Fortunately, my buddy was amenable to lunch and an earlier movie. I had to buy each of his boyfriends a pair of leather pants to make it up to him, but I reckon I got off cheap: if the situation had been reversed, I would have demanded one of the boyfriends.

Anyway, I should knock wood and or not jinx myself, but I figure that once the house closes and the last tax deadline passes and I make what should be EFU's final tuition payment, I should have at least a few weeks of relative relaxation before the universe comes up with something else to throw at me. Hopefully in the meanwhile, I can avoid any major disasters like buying the wrong house, misplacing YFU, or doubling someone into game.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


This being -- or, by now I suppose, having been -- a holiday weekend, I decided not to go to the office (Saturday morning doesn't really count, right? Surely not on a three-day weekend.); instead, b&c and I headed to the mountains for a quiet weekend. We made pretty good time on the way up because I drove. Typically, b&c drives, but he recently injured his shoulder, and I've discovered that, when there's not heavy traffic around, I really don't mind driving as much as I mind worrying about his driving. He is a charming man, for the most part, but his driving skills are surpassed only by his skill at regenerating limbs.

Anyway, we would have made the trip in about 2.5 hours, but I wanted to stop at Ollie's, a store that specializes in remaindered items. They had, for example, about eight large bins filled with wallpaper borders at ninety-nine cents each. And since each border is fifteen yards long, I could have completely wallpapered several rooms in mismatched borders less than ten dollars. But I forbore. Forbearance is a virtue. Except when it isn't, of course. I did buy several steeply discounted spiral notebooks.

We got to the house in Springs a little before 7. We took a short walk to enjoy the view and the quiet, and then b&c made dinner while I watched HGTV. We ate, and I cleaned up, and then we read for a while. A little later I went outside and tried to take pictures of the moon.

But they didn't really come out. Alas.

I slept late the next morning. It was very cool in the mountains, and the bedroom was relatively dark. B&c, who had retired earlier and who has superior light but inferior noise tolerance, was awoken earlier by several of the neighborhood's many barking dogs. One of these dogs had barked at us the previous evening when we were on our walk. She appeared to be about fifteen years old, and her owner greeted us and then said, "She's a killer" as the dog pursued us at nearly the speed of tree sap.

By the time I showered and descended, b&c had finished breakfast, so I made some toast and fried a couple of eggs and followed it with some instant coffee that I cannot in good conscience recommend. Then we set off for Deep Creek Lake State Park. We visited the so-called Discovery Center where b&c procured a trail map. He suggested that we take one of the moderate trails. It was, apparently, called the Indian Turnip Trail, but I somehow got it in mind that it was the Indian Head Trail, and I spent some time daydreaming about happenings that the trail was not prepared to deliver. Still, it was pretty.
The wild or Indian turnip (Arisaema triphyllum (L.) Schott), like other members of the Araceae (aroid family), contains needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, raphides, which ingested cause burning pain, swelling of the tongue and membranes of the mouth, and can be fatal. In the mid-1800s the raphides had yet to be discovered by chemists.

Just in case you wanted to know.

The first entrance to the trail was taped off, so we climbed a bit farther along the fire break to another entrance, where we had a choice of the high or low trails. I assumed that the trail looped back to this point, so I suggested we take the high path so that we could climb in the early part of the walk and descend later. I wasn't at all concerned about the hike until we got to a place where the path was blocked by a tree.

I wasn't troubled by the tree so much as by b&c's apparent inability to see the walk-around immediately to the right of the path. I have trouble remembering the minor shortcomings of others; for example, it was not until the fourth or fifth time that she told me, with some exasperation, that I remembered that EFU doesn't like hummus. But, really, who doesn't like hummus? And who can't read a trail map or see clearly painted blazes? The inability to comprehend that question is why I fail to remember that b&c's map reading and trail following abilities are exceeded only by his skill at giving birth. Anyway, the trail was very pleasant, and there was ample evidence of wild berry activity.

It was mostly too late in the season for wild berries, but we were not far into the hike when I happened across some ripe blueberries.

I'm sure you can understand my dilemma here. On the one hand, there is probably a big official frowny face associated with eating the wild berries. On the other hand, it's a pretty safe bet that they're organic. More to the point, though, the concept of sensitivity of initial conditions (more commonly, if annoyingly, known as the butterfly effect) tells us that, over time, the smallest action can lead to vast effects in later events. So, for example, my eating the blueberry could mean that a bird goes without vital nutrition and dies. Because of that, the bird does not contract a case of avian flu and does not go on to start a pandemic which wipes out half of the mid-Atlantic states and leads to Republican control of all branches of government for most of the 21st and early 22nd centuries. On the other hand, not eating the blueberry could mean that I miss a vital anti-oxidant, leading to a very minor cardiac event, because of which I end up dating a very cute cardiologist who, when I inevitably break his heart (figuratively: duh), channels his pain into new research which eliminates heart disease and saves millions. You can see the sort of responsibility that I live with on a day-to-day basis.

I ate the blueberries. I would like to say that I was trying to save millions from influenza and Republican oppression, but mostly I just wanted to avoid having to date anyone. Besides, they were tasty.

After we narrowly avoided losing a clearly marked trail another couple of times, I thought that I had better stop taking b&c's word for it and take charge of the map. Looking at the contour lines, I anticipated some future difficulties.

But I didn't say anything. After all, the hike was said to be moderate. Besides, I kept thinking, "Well, surely it won't be as bad as Cornwall." This thought refers to the vacation, perhaps five years ago, that we took to England, where we spent several days hiking the Cornwall Coast Path. It was the most beautiful trail I ever hiked, but there were several instances along the incredibly steep and rocky trail heading southwest from St. Ives where I thought that surrendering my body to the elements might be the best choice.

And, really, the path was fine, there was an extended portion in the middle that was steep for a prolonged period, but whenever I got tired, I thought, "Really, this is nothing like Cornwall," and before long the path had evened out to a flat and pleasant walk over railroad ties.

We reached the end of the trail, which was not the same as the beginning of the trail, but I was reminded by the views of how much I love nature.

I saw an old, large wire spool that must have been used to transport some of the electrical wire running up to the summit.

Predictably, I thought about how easy it would be to convert it to a combination bar and picnic table for my backyard, but it did not appear to be for sale. Oh well.

I was not in a hurry to head back down the mountain, so I absorbed some more of the natural beauty.

I was a bit concerned about the steepness of the descent. I was unable to get a picture that did it justice, but you can sort of see here how the earth appears to drop away.

Or you can look at this detail for the map. The Indian Turnip Trail having ended abruptly, we had to take the Fire Tower Trail back down. Later, I calculated that over the steepest parts of the trail, the descent was approximately twenty feet every ten meters. When I got to the edge of where the descent began, I was nonplussed. But there was nothing for it but to descend.

I was only a few yards down when I encountered a hiker coming the other way. He was in his forties and moderately cute with a pierced ear. He was walking a somewhat frou-frou canine. I would probably have noticed him more if I weren't worried about falling down the mountain. He said hello, and then, "Be careful. It's very steep, and there are a lot of loose rocks." Men are so shameless when they flirt.

I was perhaps another ten yards into the descent when I thought, "Wow, this is very steep. And there are a lot of loose rocks." And then, "This is way worse than Cornwall." I was scared, especially when I saw b&c, who was twenty or so yards ahead of me, slip and fall. He seemed to be okay, though it is probable that he sprained his wrist. I went very slowly, walking sideways as much as possible, and seriously regretting that I hadn't worn some manner of hiking shoe or boot. Occasionally there was a tree to hold onto, but mostly there was just open, treacherous path. I might have despaired had I not been distracted by brambles.

I ate the ripe ones, without even pausing to consider the potentially catastrophic long-term effects. They were delicious.

When I finally reached flatter ground, it was only a short walk to the parking lot. I thought at that point that I would probably sell b&c's soul for a liter of Orangina, but there is no Orangina in Western Maryland, so I had to settle for something from the vending machine.

Do not.

It was mid-afternoon then, and we were both exhausted (and sore) from the last part of the hike, so we found a restaurant and had a late lunch. The food was unremarkable, but I was very hungry. Then we drove the half-hour or so back to the house. I took some ibuprofen for the soreness, but I was so beat that I felt like I really needed to do a few lines:

I was going to say that I just don't do lines as easily as I did in my youth, but I never really did them in my youth. I was excessively well-behaved as a youth. I should probably regret the lost opportunities, but I'm too lazy.

We read and watched TV for a while and had a late and light dinner. I watched Design Star on HGTV before going to bed.

The next morning was cool and cloudy.

We had breakfast, cleaned the house, and packed up. On the drive home, b&c napped, and, since it was Labor Day, I worried about work. It seemed a fitting end to the summer.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I acquired the above print, "Lady Turns into Owl and Follows Husband" when I was in Montreal. Not this past summer, but the last time I was there, in the early nineties. My then-wife and I were on vacation, and we had gone into an Inuit gallery, and we saw it, and we loved it. Or at least I loved it: I think she loved the subject matter (The story is about a woman who dies and is so moved by her husband's grief that she turns into a spirit owl -- no shadow! -- and accompanies her husband.) because when we were dividing the property, she thrust it at me and said, disgustedly, that she was no longer interested in it because of what it symbolized. Drama much? Well, yeah, there was lots of drama in that divorce. Boy howdy, but let's not go there.

You will no doubt recognize
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
Oscar Wilde said it. I don't know whether it's true. I'm not, for the most part, a believer in objective truth, so whether that sort of statement true is not a question that I could answer with any conviction. The sentiment is often used to make, for example, fans of Wagner feel better about liking his work because, according to Wild, his life is irrelevant to his work. Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't much matter because I prefer to think of Wagner's music in terms of another Wilde quote:
It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.

Questions of morality aside, Wagner is tedious.

But there's nothing tedious, immoral, or abhorrent about the Agnes Nanogak print that we bought in Montreal, and I was shocked, though relieved, that I didn't have to fight for it in the property settlement. I always thought that the story behind it was nice, but it was still a nice story even if I was never going to be so beat up about my ex-wife's hypothetical demise that she'd want to sprout feathers. More to the point, I love that print.

It's very rare for me to love visual art. "David," yes, but even if the Italian government had offered "David" to me for 200 $CDN, I would have had trouble getting it home and finding space for it in the living room. I've had similar reactions to other pieces of art in museums and, rarely, on people's walls, but loving a piece of work that was available and affordable has happened once. What can I say? I'm visually challenged; contrariwise, I fall in love with music all the time. (Music is generally pretty cheap, though. So are books.)

"Lady Turns into Owl and Follows Husband" hasn't had a suitable home for a while. I had it hung on the walls of various apartments, but b&c's walls have always been full (feeling like a guest in his home, even after five years, was probably not terribly helpful to our relationship, but whatever), so it was in a box for a bit, and then I put it on one of the dressers in the bedroom, leaning against a wall.

I know you've been wondering when I was going to get around to the home decorating topic du jour, and, well, here we are. It occurs to me that it might be a good idea to choose my new living/dining room colors based on the colors in the painting. The blue is a good bit less vibrant than what I'd been thinking of for the bottom third of the walls, but I think that the blue in the painting is a bit livelier than it appears in the picture here. I'll have to grab some sample cards to match it. And browns are generally not my thing, but I reckon I can find cork that reflects at least one of the browns in the painting and use it on the top half of the short wall that will face the short wall on which the painting will be hung. That way I'll have a large cork board for part of the wall. And I can pin photographs to that: it's really, really easy for me to find or take photographs that I like enough to have on my wall, and between my travel archives, Flickr, and Costco's photo center, I can probably load up the whole wall for less than a Benjamin.

I figure that I can pick up the red in the dog's tongue for the banquette cushions.

(YFU has decided that she wants at least one of the walls in her room to be a deep red, and that she also wants chalkboard paint circles on that wall. It strikes me as a good idea, but I haven't committed to it yet.)

I am still fixated on the aluminum pipe bed. It seems like only a minor extravagance, especially considering how much I'm sure I'll love it. I do have a bed frame already, but it's cheap and rickety, and I can always give it to EFU again. If I decide to be especially virtuous, I can wait a little while on the bed and use the money that I'm sure my parents will give me at Christmas for it, but I doubt that I'll want to be as virtuous as all that. I considered settling for a PVC pipe version of it. It would cost a lot less, even after factoring in the additional pipe needed for it: PVC pipe is strong, but it flexes, so I'd need a lot of cross supports. But I wouldn't love it.

In the comments from my previous entry, Père Antoine mentioned his own plan to put a bed on a pulley system attached to two bicycle hoists. Brilliant. Since I don't live in NYC, I have enough room to have dedicated bed space, but I can think of any number of other things that I'd like to suspend from the ceiling, in the bedroom and elsewhere.

His suggestion put me in mind of a New Yorker cartoon from way back in 1983, which was very likely the first year I subscribed to TNY. I didn't think I'd be able to track it down online, but I managed:

George Booth was probably joking, but I love the idea of a table hoist. I probably won't have one because I have an alternate plan: two Ikea sawhorses and two Ikea tabletops: a small one for everyday and a larger one for dinner parties. I was thinking that I'd have enough room on the cork wall to hang whichever one wasn't in use at the moment. To make the arrangement more decorative, I was thinking of stenciling on one of the tabletops a quilt pattern. On the other one, perhaps a cheap reproduction of another Inuit print. Or some New Yorker covers. Or "David."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


OMG, y'all. I want that bed.

And I don't just mean that it'd be cool to have that bed. I mean that without that bed, my life will have no meaning. My salt will have lost its savor. Wherewith shall we flavor the meat, readers? WHEREWITH?

Sorry, I got a little bit carried away there, but it's been a tough week, you know? I got deadlines and there was that literature-destroying flood and this morning EFU called me with a list of textbooks that she wants me to find cheaply for her (i.e., buy for her) and there's the house closing in three weeks and then the heavens part and the angels sing and I see a picture of this bed and all is right in the world.

And -- you know what? -- that bed is available online for the low, low price of $1,339.18, plus shipping, and I want it so badly that I might consider paying that, even though that's an obscene amount of money to pay for a bed frame, and if you don't think that's an obscene amount of money to pay for a bed frame, then, well, you're not me. But at that price, it comes as a kit, so it requires assembly, and if that's the case, I might as well buy the parts from a plumbing/metal supply place. So I priced the components, and I could get all the pipes and the fittings for $577.64, including shipping. I'd still need a pipe cutting wrench, but I bet Dad still has at least one of those.

But life is never so easy, is it? As I was dreaming of that bed, and all of the uses to which it might be put*, it occurred to me that I'm buying a Cape, and the ceiling to my bedroom is slanted, and I might not be able to fit that bed in my room. Bitter pill, meet swallow.

Then I realized that I could modify the design, take away the canopy feature (which somewhat limits its functionality, but c'est la vie) and build it for even less ($507.97, including shipping, if you're keeping track). But it's a compromise, and life is full of compromises, but this is one that I'd really rather not make.

And then I remembered that before I'd seen this bed, my dream bed was one that I hadn't actually seen but had only, well, dreamed of, and that dream bed is built entirely from 4x4 lumber and lag bolts.

And heavy wood dream bed, which, with some ingenuity, maintains all of the horizontal functionality of the pipe bed, would be much cheaper. I wasn't able to price it precisely, but based on my most recent trip to Home Depot, I'm confident it could be built for less than $120.

And that would still be awesome, but there's a problem: every source I find for 4x4 dimensional lumber only sells that size in pressure-treated wood, and pressure-treated lumber is generally reserved for outdoor use because of the nasty chemicals they use to make it impervious to the outdoors. And it might be possible to seal in the nasty chemicals with several coats of paint, but there'd still be the cutting and drilling phases, which would subject me to sawdust. And maybe that can be made safe, but I just don't know.

But the main problem is that the sturdy wood bed -- however functional and cool and attractive it might turn out to be -- isn't the pipe bed. This is what happens when you dare to dream, people.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other things to obsess over besides my probable inability to have my dream bed. I'm still thinking of the living/dining room paint treatment and furnishings, for example. I think I've decided to do away with the faux chair rail border, but in the interest of effective space management, I believe that the dining area of the living/dining room will feature a banquette. Like this, but not like this:

Different colors, probably, and I'd have built in storage and maybe not such a thick back cushion and yadda yadda yadda, but still a banquette, then a dining table, and maybe three padded chairs that could do double duty as living room seating for that moment during the dinner party when the guests migrate from the dining portion of the living/dining room to the post-dining lounge portion of the living/dining room.

I still have weeks and weeks in which to change my mind countless times work all this out.

*For instance, it would make an excellent support for a clothesline, or even a frame for a make-shift greenhouse. What did you think I meant?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Le Déluge, Après Moi

The first time I said to myself that I would probably never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles again was likely back in my thirties when I was packing up my books to move out of the house that I'd shared with my now-ex-wife. On one level, it was a simple acknowledgment that I probably could have let that book go, even though I knew I would choose not to. But the statement came to mean something more to me: every time I thought about the intersection of age, my uneasy role as a collaborator to capitalism, and the slow demise of my intellectual life, I'd put it in similar terms: "There comes a time in his life when a man realizes that he'll probably never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles again." Pretentious, yes, but at least I only ever said it to myself.

It didn't have to be Tess, of course, but she/it was a particularly good candidate: as a youth, with certain exceptions (mostly 20th century southern writers, especially Faulkner) all of my favorite novelists had been 19th Century English writers. And I'd liked Tess very much, but not so much that I'd probably ever feel a desire for it strong enough to overcome the charms of either a novel I hadn't yet read or a novel I liked better. Put another way, Hardy occupied a middle tier between authors I'd keep and re-read (Austen, Dickens) and those I'd eventually donate to the church bazaar (Thackeray, Trollope). I'm not sure exactly who else is in the middle tier, but it likely includes all of George Eliot except Middlemarch. It's important to me to believe that there will come a time when I have sufficient fortitude and leisure to read Middlemarch again. That's a lot of leisure. And fortitude.

Please join me now in a moment of silence for the transition that died but that would otherwise have been here. Thank you.

And now the scene changes to my office. The day is yesterday, the time is five o'clock. Pm. (Actually, it turns out that there really isn't another one.) I'm reviewing a tax return and planning to stay until 8 or so. But then, the cell phone rings. It's b&c's ring.

TED: Hi.
B&c: Hello there.
TED: Yeah?
B&c: Can you come home early today?
TED: Um...
B&c: The basement is flooded.
TED: Ugh.
B&c: I think it's either the pump on the air conditioner or it's the water heater. Your boxes are too heavy for me to move.
TED: Fine.
B&c: Are you coming home on 355 or Connecticut Ave.
TED: Why?
B&c: I wanted to see whether I could get a non-monosyllabic response out of you.

So I spend the next forty-five minutes (the traffic getting out of Bethesda at 5 o'clock is a rare treat) driving home, where I hear b&c in the basement, mopping and cursing, and I go downstairs, and there's water covering the 15% of the basement where most of my boxes are stored, and a lot of the boxes are on top of other boxes, so they just get moved; or they contain non-porous cooking equipment, which just needs to be dried off; or clothes, which I haul upstairs to launder; but then I see a photocopy paper box with "BOOKS" written on it in permanent marker.

I passed on to the box, and stooped down. I lifted the heavy cardboard, put the other dank pages aside, and turned the cover. And it was Tess, cold and dead.

I was not happy. Ordinarily, at such a time, I would take some consolation in philosophy, but the flood got that, too:

[By the way, you know that commercial where the two guys stuff an entire busted grand piano into a garbage bag? Load of hooey. I got the same kind of bag, and it couldn't even handle a small box of damp paperbacks. On the plus side, I did finally locate the power chord to my electronic keyboard.]

By the time I'd moved what I could and bagged up what I had to throw away, b&c was nearing the end of his rope. He'd been mopping for hours but the water kept coming. I tried to suggest, gently, that a leaking water heater qualified as a plumbing emergency, so he could try the after-hours number for his plumber. His response was to say that he needed to go make dinner. And then I asked him whether he'd turned off the water flowing into the water heater, in the hopes that doing so would stop water coming out of the water heater, but he hadn't realized that the blue valve on the pipe leading into the water heater had a purpose. I turned it off and mopped some more and then we had dinner. Then I heard him moaning from downstairs that there was more water. I suggested that since turning off the intake valve hadn't been enough, perhaps it would be a good idea for me to drain the water heater, and his response was to go out and buy a wet vac. Far be it from me to deny any man the pleasure of buying a new piece of equipment, but this is the same guy who could not hammer tacks into fence posts but still insisted that my buying a staple gun was the height of extravagance.

Not that I was angry or anything.

Anyway, draining a forty gallon hot water heater turns out to be a tedious task. If the situation ever arises, make it easier on yourself by hooking one end of a hose to the drain valve, putting the other end of the hose down in a drain somewhere, and opening the hot water taps in the rest of the house, to relieve the vacuum and empty the tank more quickly. Or you can just haul bucket after bucket after bucket of hot water up the stairs and pour it down the toilet: you'll feel more virtuous that way.

I was up until after midnight draining and mopping and listening to b&c swear about how the wet vac was a waste of money, especially when it overloaded the circuit and he had to find his way through a dark basement to the circuit breaker panel. Twice. I suggested that maybe it would be a good idea to turn off the dehumidifier while he was running the wet vac, but he's a Catholic, so I reckon that bumping into things in a dark wet basement is his version of penance. I had always thought that a "Hail, Mary" began with "Hail, Mary," but it appears that "Jesus Christ!" and "Fuck!" are also acceptable beginnings. Live and learn.

One of the other things I learned last night is that while the leak may have happened yesterday, there had been other episodes of water in the basement. In going through some of my boxes, I happened across significant amounts of mold. My eyes began to water and my skin to itch, but fortunately it was only about six more hours after that before I could take a shower. Unfortunately, there was no hot water, so it was a cold shower, but b&c was paranoid about my running the water, so it was only a brief cold shower.

And today my eyes feel like they might swell shut, and I'd take a Benadryl, but then I'd pass out in my office because I'm only just barely staying awake as it is, and that is the sort of day I'm having, and the worst part of it all is that I'll almost certainly never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles again.