January 26, 2005

I Too Have NothingNothingNothing

I have been falling behind on my blogging. It is interesting (to me, anyhow) that no sooner do I make a space for it at mayoreric.com, I seem to lose interest in it. It may well be that I have been busy with things, e.g. getting MT installed on my server space and developing my new webspace. As usual, school is interfering with my plans; statistics keeps me on campus four mornings per week, and I typically put in some hours afterward.

Now that I have ultimate control over the files that I upload and can find paths to them, I am tempted to integrate the blog into the rest of the webspace. There are good reasons to, and good reasons not to, I suppose. I recognize that blogs are public reading, and that that is their raison d'Ítre. Therefore, the more traffic the blog sends the way of the site the better. But I think I might be serving more than one public. Putting the site under one roof is a great start to figuring out what I am really about. At least digitally.

I am not sure what the significance is of the fact that the people that know me as a person rather than as their great hope for the future are most supportive of my next Lunatic Business Venture. I am sick to death of being a lousy grad student, and equally sick of providing no reason why I might be considered otherwise.

I am mindful of the story of a neighbor's nephew, a freshman at the U. He was snowboarding in Colorado recently, and had a terrible fall, breaking three vertebrae. Everyone is hopeful that he will walk again, and the preliminary signs are better than they were a week ago. That being said, within days of being told that he would miss his classes due to being traction and on a respirator etc, the U. called his mom and told her to pack up his stuff subito. The U. might have had some good reasons for doing so, like they were worried about its potential liability for the theft of his possessions or that they really needed the space. I would have hoped that they would have respected the busy schedule of a mother whose son (a customer of the U.) is on life support. In contrast, the ski resort where he fell sent a representative out to personally deliver his snowboard and personal effects that had been found on and near him. They told the mother that they knew he had not hit a tree after all, because they did not find any bark on him. The things one learns from the Ski Patrol.

The point of all this is that I should not expect the U. to allow me to exit gracefully. I think my departure will be more of the sort "Give us the keys and the laptop NOW. You will be escorted out of the building." And this is why I keep attending classes and registering for non-existent classes (thank God for pre-thesis credits!).

Shermanilla has been writing about the various places she would consider living, should the opportunity ever arise to get the heck out, at least for a while. Recently, we have been looking at Merced, California, of all places. Merced is a Central Valley town ala Fresno or Modesto that lies at the approach to Yosemite. It is also where a brand spanking new UC is going to open. Perhaps she and I are both something of real estate speculators. Every family has at least one, I suppose, and hers more than their share.

One of the nice things about a personal webspace, untethered to the U., is that the people who may want to follow up on me will be able to do so. One preserved friendship will be worth the expense and the effort.

Posted by webs0080 at 5:18 AM

January 5, 2005

The Perfect Little House

In trying times, I am easily distracted by shopping. And, like many men, the bigger the item the better. Thus, real estate becomes a siren calling out to me. Friends are looking at real estate in Montana, giving Roomie and I the opportunity to vicariously experience the thrill of real estate shopping.

While we were shopping for our house in Takoma Park, we came very close to buying the Perfect Little House. It was in our price range, and the neighborhood was ho-hum. The house was a mock-Tudor built in 1949 and had been occupied by the original owners since then. From the entrance foyer, there was a small living room on the left and a small dining room with a built in corner-hutch on the right. At the back of the living room, a tidy screened in porch projected from the house. Behind the dining room, a smallish kitchen with breakfast nook had all its original cabinetry.

Upstairs, there were two bedrooms. The larger of the two had a small additional room with a window coming off of it. The capacious closets had lights and were lined with cedar. The woodwork throughout the house was immaculate. This couple must have made the kids remove their shoes in the house. Or maybe, like us, they didn't have kids.

Downstairs from the kitchen was the rumpus room. It was finished in black and red linoleum tile and had an electric fireplace. I don't think there was a bar there, but there could have been. The water pipes were orginal and copper. The previous owner paid for top quality stuff.

The garage was a stone one-car affair. Cute as a bug, but too small for our needs. Something would have had to remain outside, and it was not going to be the motorcycles. Because the garage was smaller, the yard was decently-sized. Furthermore, it was fenced and well-maintained to boot. The dogs would have loved it.

Alas, the house was one room too small for our needs. But it was a real one-owner cream puff, the single-family residential equivalent of the car that the little old lady drove only on Sundays, when she had it waxed. We went for a larger house with a larger garage and a smaller yard. Compared to the PLH, the place we ended up with was a dump when we took possession. Once the floors were done and the interior was painted, it was nice in its own way. But it was restored, rather than conserved, the latter making even the wallpaper at the PLH tolerable. The thought we could live in such a place filled us with the idea that we could be a couple worthy and deserving of stewarding such a home. I think we are over it now.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:44 AM

December 23, 2004

Home for the Holidays

When I arrived back in Bethesda after visiting the Accokeek, I found my smoker siblings—freshly arrived from New York—out in the porch. After initial greetings, my brother muttered "I think I brought my address book, that means that I might be able to visit X." I did not place this comment in the context of my disappearing every unbooked evening to visit friends. Aside from Christmas Eve at the Palm and Christmas dinner at home, I was somewhere else for dinner each night of the week I spent in Maryland.

I went inside to greet my 14 year old niece, who was staring out the plate glass windows into the deciduous forest "The Woods." I explained that I had been visiting friends in southern Maryland, and that I was going away for dinner that night. She said "You are so lucky to have a car and to have places to go."

Shortly thereafter, my sister lamented the fact that her good friend in Bethesda was in Texas at the mother-in-law's. She had no means of escape. It was then that I realized that the first thing each of us thought to do was get the hell out of there. What is it about being home for the holidays that makes us dread being there?

Posted by webs0080 at 7:45 AM

December 17, 2004

Surprises

Sometimes life throws the most unexpected and wonderful surprises. I had two recently.

The first was the result of a fortunate confluence of interests. For as long as I can remember, my brother has always gotten us music for Christmas. He is a talented musician, and he listens to a lot of it. Unfortunately, his tastes run more to Celtic folk music or way out there stuff like Anna Domino and Blaine Reininger. The thing is, once he gives you a cd and you are polite and say that some of the songs are OK, by ten Christmas' later you have the artist's entire catalog, half of which have not been opened. But this year, this same sibling gave Roomie the new John Waters cd. Not only was the cd JUST WHAT ROOMIE WANTED, but included was a signed Polaroid of John Waters with my brother, almost on his lap. (We need not go there.)

Needless to say, we were amazed by the appropriateness of the gift, since Roomie adores John Waters. My brother went to an opening of John Waters' photography at a gallery some time back and has gone back to catch up with him each time he is in San Francisco.

The other surprise was that I met with an instructor who actually had positive things to say about a paper I wrote. Sure, he knew as well as I that it was theoretically weak (I could see in his comments a large "UNCLEAR" scribbled in the margin to my introduction). My gut sense is that he is kind and supportive to all the students in the class. I know for a fact that he used the exact same line "You need to start getting serious about research design" to another student. Still, he said that I am ready to actually go out and do this kind of research. It was a much-needed shot in the arm, but I felt numb at the time, so traumatic has been this semester.

In other news, I have opted for the drug-free approach to my mental health. At least for the present. I have a return appointment scheduled with the psychiatrist, who told me that he could understand why two different therapists would have two different recommendations on whether drugs were right for me. It feels good, at least, to be doing something about my mental health.

Four days. One paper. Ten pages. I. Can. Do. This.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:16 AM

December 16, 2004

Secret Mail

Shermanilla posted on December 15th about Secret Mail. Lo and behold, when I went on the porch to retrieve the paper this morning, what did I see but a shoebox size box wrapped in a National Geographic topographically rendered map of the world's oceans inside an anonymous brown paper bag? No labels adorned the box. The first words exchanged this morning:

—Secret mail!

—For me? Or is it for both of us?

Indignation and disappointment at the prospect of sharing dripped from her voice.

—I think it is for you, all you.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:30 AM

December 11, 2004

Shorty and Me

Roomie and I were passively listening to American Routes this evening while working on a puzzle. I will do anything to avoid working on a Habermas paper. The show was all about duets. Then the host mentioned that John Cephas and Phil Wiggins were in the studio. All four of our ears perked up. Selkye's may have too, but in her case it was the prospect of a baklava crumb or errant puzzle piece that peaked her interest.

Roomie and I lived two doors up from Phil in Takoma Park. I remember the cigar smoke which drifted into our yard. Phil smoked out front of the house, above the sidewalk, his mastiff Shorty by his side. Shorty was a good dog: friendly, but large, with an oversize (though probably not for the breed) head. We heard Cephas and Wiggins play once on Prairie Home Companion. Actually, we heard Garrison Keillor thank Cephas and Wiggins for appearing on the show. Phil and Judy couldn't make it to our Holiday Eggnog Fest one year, but they left a gift basket with a bottle of wine and a Cephas and Wiggins CD. It was pretty good.

As the septugenarian Cephas tells it, there are two traditional African American forms of the blues—Mississippi Delta and Piedmont—because Africans from different parts of Africa had different musical traditions. Cephas and Wiggins play the more uncommon of the two, the latter.

It was interesting to hear them on the radio, and it made us miss DC's cultural diversity a little.

Posted by webs0080 at 9:28 PM

December 9, 2004

Small Worlds

I have recently discovered that as I get older I want to become more fearless about reaching out to people. There are too many people that I have never taken the time to get to know as well as I would have liked to.

This afternoon, I heard from an old friend. We were never especially close, but we would have been, I like to think, if we had ever made the time to meet socially. Getting to know people who are already married while married can be challenging. At any rate, she vouched for my (being a) character on the Dunsmuir City Council back in the day.

The email conversation with my old friend made my day. And it needed making. And it brought to mind this conversation I had with a fellow seminarian from the Philosophy Department exactly one week ago this evening.

— You were Mayor of Dunsmuir?
— You KNOW of Dunsmuir?
— My father lives in Eureka and we would go to Mt. Shasta all the time. One of his best friends lives there. He's a lawyer.
— Who? X?
— No, his name is Y Something.
— Blond, a little heavy set and bald?
— That's him!
— Yeah, he dated one of our regulars for a while [Z].
— He loved to go that place by the tracks on the corner.
— Cafe Maddalena. He used to come into our place when he had to wait for a table.
— I swear he would have dinner there twice a week.

So there you have it.

Posted by webs0080 at 10:22 PM

November 12, 2004

Funny Thing Happened to Me at the Clinic

There is nothing like going to the mental health clinic for one's self-esteem. Last time, just being there for a visit or two was enough to convince me that I did not really need to be there. This time I am determined not to leave without getting a prescription for some SSRI's.

A pretty looking blonde does her paperwork as far away as possible from anyone else. I feel for her.

I pick up the paper work to be completed from the tall (even when seated) receptionist. As I fill it out, a brunette mother with short brown hair fills out paperwork while her two blonde daughters play with the vertical blinds, bunching them up, releasing them, and generally squealing and gurgling the way a seven and a five year old do. Both of them are wearing pink pants. Mom is there, I suspect, as we all are, to get a prescription or get a prescription renewed. She reprimands one of the daughters: "The way you are playing with them is bad. The way Hildy is playing with them is OK." I can't tell any difference in how they are playing with the vertical blinds.

Mom goes to the counter to explain her situation to the receptionist, as the daughters push Mom's patience. "Hildy, don't leave." As mom explains the goods her psychiatrist at the U. of Iowa gave her seem to be working, the older daughter smacks Hildy right in the mouth. Hildy begins to wail, genuinely traumatized by her sister. Mom tells the abusive daughter to sit down, and picks up Hildy to comfort her. Meanwhile, the older daughter doesn't sit down but rather begins to cry, or I should say, fake cry, because it sounds totally phony. Rather than sob like her little sister, a quiet, high-pitched whine emanates from her. She stands close to her mom, putting her forehead into Mom's hip.

"I'm so sorry." says Mom to the receptionist.

"I have two daughters myself."

While this is going on, a tall handsome woman with short spiky black hair comes out of the offices to (I assume) schedule a return appointment. After the mom is done at the desk, I submit my paperwork. The blonde will have to wait, since I have been there before and my paperwork will go faster. As I turn to pick up my grip, the spiky haired woman flashes me an ever so sly grin.

In the vestibule at the front of the building, Mom coaxes the older daughter: "Now I really want you to apologize to Hildy, so we can put this all behind us." Yeah right.

Posted by webs0080 at 1:02 PM

August 15, 2004

Statutes of Limitations

I have been away. It all started as family members began to descend upon our house two weeks ago. Once everyone arrived, we made our way to Ely, Moose Lake, and eventually the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

At my 40th birthday celebration, I got carded at the Ely Steak House. I would suspect a clever and discrete family member of putting the waitress up to it, but none of my family is clever and discrete enough to pull it off. Plus, only a handful of people at the table noticed what was going on. I suspect that the authorities had given the steak house trouble in the past, and the waitress was being abundantly cautious.

smmap.jpgTwo days after that, I swam to Canada. From Robbins Island at the bottom of Knife Lake, it is only about 150 feet. Double that to get from the canoe parking places on the island. Swimming to Canada does not seem like much when one has on the same day crossed the border half a dozen times portaging and canoeing. En route to Robbins, we spied three turtles sunning themselves on a large rock.

The next day, we paddled from Robbins across the lake to the Vera portage. The high wind created whitecaps on the water, and our keel-less We No Nah Minnesota II's required constant steering. My mom spotted the portage by the canoe paint on the rocks.

Then commenced the grueling portage to Vera Lake. The first challenge was a section of trail composed of deep mud, upon which someone had thought to place logs, which had become incredibly slippery. Shortly thereafter, we scaled a steep granite face toting a canoe (and later a #4 Duluth pack). All in all, it was a hell of a portage.

It rained the entire way across Vera, which was totally camped out. Smart campers stay put when the weather is foul. Consequently, the paddlers coming from the places to which we were headed told us that Ensign was already chock full. After a long but easier portage over to Ensign, the rain began in earnest. I did see what later was determined to be a woodchuck dart across the trail. We searched in vain for several campsites along Ensign's eastern shore, shivering and paddling out of sheer determination to find a spot. The only redeeming part of that day's paddling, apart from surviving it, was spotting a bald eagle atop a dead tree not far from the campsite we finally found.

The campsite was small, and we struggled to find a level spot. It is no fun canoeing, portaging, looking for a campsite, setting up a tent and tarp for the packs, cooking, cleaning, hanging the pack and going to sleep all in the rain. It would have been more fun had our tarp been large enough to accommodate our bodies as well our packs underneath it. Our 25 dollar rain pant met their match.

The next day, however, they dried out. We made excellent time from Ensign, despite some scary headwinds as we left the campsite. Though some of us had doubts about paddling through a small portage, we saved some time by running a channel. At the end of the channel we saw a red deer hanging out with a blue heron.

We enjoyed a rare tailwind coming down Moose Lake, and we leapfrogged the Boy Scouts (who had been out for 8 days) who had passed us at the portage. Some of them were apparently none too eager to return to the base camp, (located up Moose Lake's shore from our own home base), as evidenced by their paddling in circles, resting and fishing from small islands and general dilly-dallying on the water.

There must be a term for the jet lag type feeling one experiences coming home from camping too quickly. The next day was entirely lost to me as I sorted out pieces of our time away. We packed entirely too much food, which is good because we managed to carry it all: this means we could have stayed away much longer if we had arranged to. Next year, we will stay out a week, and we will bring some Gore-Tex.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:32 AM

June 18, 2004

The Test

In 1982, I was so ready to move out that I didn't wait for high school to end. As it turns out, I blew off enough school that I missed graduation by managing to fail American Government. I moved to a room in a house across from the seminary, located in a small unincorporated part of San Mateo County, nestled between Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton. The woman who owned the house sold me an old Honda C100 which had not run in years for the princely sum of $200, which I paid in payments of 100/50/50 over a period of months. I cleaned its carb, bought a battery, and began riding the thing to school -- when indeed I went -- and to work at the New Varsity.

According to the California Vehicle Code, the CA100 was a motorcycle and not a moped, because it did not pedals with which to start it. Therefore, I was required to have a motorcycle endorsement added to my driver's license, which I had earned 18 months earlier. By the time I took the test, I had moved out from the house on Santa Monica Avenue, and was rooming with a graphic artist cum indie record label producer in Mountain View. Thus, I took the driving portion of the motorcycle test in Santa Clara.

In the days before motorcycle safety courses, all one could really do was take the written test, get a permit, and practice like hell during daylight hours. The only privileges the license grants over the permit is the ability to carry a passenger and ride and night, neither of which is tested. The large difference is that the permit expires sooner than the license, which may be renewed an indefinite number of times.

Getting to Santa Clara from Mountain View involved longish ride down El Camino Real, past many car dealerships. Both towns were pretty much backwaters back then. It was the Friday before Hallowe'en, and some of the DMV staff were in costumes.

I met the fellow who was to administer the test out in the testing area carved out of the largish parking lot. The first off-putting thing was that the tester was in costume. He wore a rubber mask and a trench coat, from which bare legs extended. Low boots sans laces adorned his feet. I did the "key", riding up to a circle, doing a couple of laps and returning down a lane parallel to the one I rode up on. Next, we measured braking distances. We measured braking distances on curves, both left- and right-handed. Finally, the tester picked up a remote control box with wires that led to a saw-horse thing with three lights on it. He instructed me to accelerate normally through the gears (as I had already done in all the previous exercises) toward the saw-horse and when a yellow light flashed I was to steer away from the light around the opposite side of the saw-horse.

I accelerated normally toward the saw-horse, getting up to about 30mph. No lights. I braked as hard as I could without locking up the wheels, stopping inches in front of the obstacle. Mr. Man in a Mask apologized and adjusted the controls on his remote. "Go back and let's try this again." Again, I accelerated normally through the gears toward the saw-horse. This time, both lights flashed on. The tester was definitely messing with me. Again, I stopped short of the saw-horse, and again he offered an apology. On the third pass, the light came on on the left and I swerved to the right. Test passed.

What kind of lessons can a eighteen-year-old take away this tale? First off, take the test on a bike you can manage really well. Small bikes are preferable. Second, the tester may be out to trick you. Third, know the limits of your own ability and the bike itself. Get a feel for how long it takes to slow the thing to a stop without locking up the wheels. I think it is a good thing that many states now require under-18's to take a course, and that insurance companies give discounts for safety course completion. Even better is the ability in 20 states or so to gain exemption from the skills section of the driver's license exam in a supportive environment. I can't honestly say that I would have signed up for the course, but if one had been offered while I was in high school, I would have been all over it.

Posted by webs0080 at 3:15 PM

January 11, 2004

Railroad Perils

One of the great things about living in a railroad town is the stories one gets to hear from the locals. One of our customers at the cafe was a manic artist-type, who at one point had purchased a private railroad car made by the Harriman company that had derailed some time back and had sat on the bank of the Upper Sacramento River for a number of years. Harriman cars are distinctive for their concrete chassis' which give them a smooth ride and greater resistance to the usual side to side rocking of lighter private cars like Pullmans.

I once asked one of my other customers, a railroad employee, how the car came to end up down the hillside.

Now, it should be mentioned here that the Dunsmuir yard is not flat exactly, but on a slight grade. Railroads generally construct their lines with very gradual climbs and descents, so the motive power can be easily regulated. On account of Dunsmuir's grade, locomotive engines are left running so the airbrakes can remain pressurized. Cars on the other hand, when disconnected from the engine and thus the air pressure, have to be "tied down" by hand. Handbrakes are operated by either a pump handle connected to a chain via a ratchet, or a steering wheel looking thing that operates the clamp on the brake. The Dunsmuir grade begins its ascent below Lake Shasta, over fifty miles away.

The Harriman car was sitting near the roundhouse when the brakeman noticed that it was moving slightly. He jumped up on the end of the car to tighten the handbrake and noticed that the brake on the Harriman car was on the inside of the car. This was usually not a problem, but this time the door happened to be locked. I suspect that because the car was elegantly furnished and privately owned, the brakeman decided it would be better to stop the car from the outside rather than smash open a window to get at the brake. Perhaps he would try to stop the car and find a key.

In any case, the brakeman jumped off the slowly rolling car and decided to chuck the wheels of the car. This trick worked with the usual boxcars in the yard. However, the concrete base base of the Harriman car gave it more weight than a boxcar, and thus more force. A bunch of maintenance of way guys looked up from their lunches to see the poor brakeman tossing wood and wheel chucks under the car, which either crushed or pushed aside the objects he threw in front of it.

Once the car moved through the first switch, the men left their lunches and quickly drove to the end of the yard, about a mile downstream. By the time the men got there, the car was already approaching a slow and steady rate of speed. "Rate of acceleration" is probably more accurate, since that was exactly what was happening. As the Harriman car approached them, the men quickly piled in the truck and raced to the next road crossing, at Soda Creek, five miles downstream.

The men jammed in all sorts scrap metal into the tracks to derail the car at Soda Creek. They pounded in tie plates and stacked railroad ties; they constructed a small but sturdy berm with sledgehammers and shovels. moving as much as they could before the car arrived. When they heard the telltale squeal of the trucks moving on the curve, they rain behind the truck and waited.

The Harriman car hit the pile of debris at approximately fifty miles per hour, about at least twice as fast as the men had ever seen anything move along that stretch of track. The Harriman's concrete base gave it a low center of gravity, which now kept it glued to the tracks at speeds that would have derailed all but the lowest profile rolling stock. It did not appear to be slowed in the slightest by the pile which it distributed the instant of the collision.

A second crew, which had been shadowing the runaway, sped past Soda Creek and decided to get off at the Gibson siding, another ten miles downstream to throw the switch to the sidiing. They quickly jumped out of the truck and sent the fastest runner to throw the switch, to get the car off the mainline.

The car hit the switch and the siding at approximately seventy miles per hour, and for a moment, it looked as though it would go through the exit switch and continue on its way to Redding. Instead, when it hit the second switch it crossed over the mainline, and flew the air. It plowed down cottonwoods, oaks, and cedars as it landed upright, continuing in the same general direction it had been heading for the past 15 miles. The car came to a rest with a terrible crash some 200 feet downstream from the switch.

The concrete base had done all the work of clearing its path, and so the car came to a stop pretty much undamaged. Moving the car presented an interesting challenge. When boxcars derail, as they often do in that particular canyon, they are unloaded (and if possible, salvaged) before the car is brought back up. The Harriman car carried its weight in its construction, and could not be thus lightened. Eventually, the railroad disconnected the trucks, which were undamaged and could be reused. Then, much later, the car itself was lifted out of the canyon and onto a flatbed car.

Posted by webs0080 at 9:48 AM

November 7, 2003

The Buying of Stuff That is Not For Sale

DebCentral recently posted about the mixed feelings one has about selling one's possessions on the street. It reminded me of another Nutglade story.

I was working in the bar lateish one night when a drunken woman and her date came in looking for a drink. As was usual for the bar early in our business, it was dead quiet. The pair wanted hard liquor and all we had was beer and wine. But she noticed this kitschy deer and fawn lamp on the bar, which Spouse had purchased at the McCloud flea market for a dollar.

"How much do you want for that lamp?" she slurred.

"The lamp is not for sale."

"Well, why not?"

"Well," said I "Selling our furniture is not the business we are engaged in."

"How about if I gave you twenty dollars for the lamp?"

"You want to give me twenty dollars for this lamp?" I asked.

"How about ten?" replied she.

"Twenty sounds better" I replied, quickly deciding that it wasn't worth my time to take ten for the hassle of haggling with a drunk.

"OK. Twenty dollars for the lamp."

"Let me ask my wife. It's her lamp." I picked up the phone and roused Spouse from her TV watching to tell her about the offer. She took this new and surprising information in for a few seconds then announced "Take it."

I unplugged the lamp, and took a twenty dollar bill from the drunken lady. I hope she is pleased with her purchase.

Posted by webs0080 at 7:42 AM

October 18, 2003

Saint Paul Saga

We moved here in July of last year. But we opened escrow on our house in the May preceding. We love our neighborhood, but one of the drawbacks to our location was that the house next door was owned by a handyman whose preferred maintenance strategy was to do as little as possible and use recycled materials whenever possible. In other words, the place was a dump. Fortunately, the house was small: a Cape Cod with a second story pushed out of the roof to the rear of the house. Our second story affords a commanding view of the tar-patches and the rusty gutters with barely hung from the soffits.

On the day we made our offer, the news was saturated with coverage of a local tragedy. The fellow (let's call him X) in the house next door to the one we were in the process of buying had disappeared, leaving his wife and four children looking for answers. On the day we made our offer, the authorities found his body duct-taped and gagged in White Bear Lake.

The story was tragic because the children had lost their birth mother four years earlier to cancer. Thus, the four kids were living with step-mom Mrs. X, who had only known them for those four years. Bio-mom's parents became regular commuters from Minneapolis, taking the kids each weekend. The kids were the strongest link to the daughter that they had lost, and they had known the kids far longer than step-mom had. A custody battle ensued. Changes happened quickly that summer: Mrs. X brought home first one vicious black dog, and then another less vicious one to keep him company. The children learned how to agitate the dogs into violent frenzies. Soon the commute reversed: the kids moved in with bio-grands, and came to visit here on weekends. No doubt part of the reason they won the custody conflict was superior condition of the living conditions they could provide for the kids.

Our deceased neighbor was, in a word, and despite his fervent religiosity, a miser. He refused to throw any stick of furniture that could be made to function in some capacity. So imagine our surprise when we learned that he had left behind a half a million dollar life insurance policy. We had fantasies that she would move and we would (along with the friendly neighbors on the other side of her) buy her place and have it razed.

The first signs that she was staying put occurred while the kids were there: a DirectTV dish went up out back. Furniture started getting dragged to the alley. Once the kids were gone, Mrs. X got a new Honda Passport. The minivan now remains on the street out front. We learned that Mrs. X's mother lives around the corner. She would not be leaving any time soon.

She began announcing her renovation plans: she hired a contractor who dismantled the fence in the backyard, parked a large trailer there, replaced the brick front of her house with visquine, and promptly disappeared. Weeks later, he returned for a day's work and dug some holes for the enormous deck out back. She claimed she was having a porch built out front, which really turns out to be another deck. I am getting the impression that the only things her contractors have ever built are decks.

They have replaced all the windows, and installed a couple of garden windows in the kitchen.

Mrs. X swears that on the many days when no work trucks show up that there are workers busy renovating the inside of the house. There may yet be reasons why she hasn't fired the contractor: Mrs. X spends many minutes chatting with one of the carpenters, who has of late begun to bring his own child to work with him. "Don't touch the chop-saw!"

It is said that there is no accounting for taste. True enough, but there are limits. Mrs. X revealed her landscape plans to us. Evidently, she likes mowing grass no more and a lot less than the rest of us; she has decided to replace her lawn with a field of pumpkin-sized rocks, as her infirmed mom around the corner has. As our neighbor describes it, it looks like a glacial maraine. I imagine that she has not considered the difficulty of raking boulders and removing the trees that will grow up between them, their roots smooshed under the weight of many stones, nourished by the unrakeable debris of the urban deciduous forest. As a precauion, she has removed the two fruit trees that partly shielded the eyes of street from looking at her house. l wonder if we will live here long enough to see another owner of that home struggle to clear the rocks off there.

It's easy to be an armchair critic, but Midwestern sensibility says "Get the new roof on before it starts to snow." It's mid-October: in 2001, a storm on Hallowe'en dropped nine inches. It's even easier to be an armchair critic of other people's spending. Without a doubt, X intended Mrs. X to be taken care of, but some of the money must surely have been intended for the welfare of his children. Mrs. X has decided to renovate the house that they no longer live in, hiring a contractor that shows no evidence of ever finishing the job. I think my neighbor is right: she is going to spend the entire insurance policy.

Mrs X claims that the workers can't finish the deck until the hot tub arrives and can be installed. My impression is that all they need is the wiring for the pump and the plumbing and they can finish. What do I know? Jill thought she saw the hot tub arrive yesterday, but the five by five by four box was merely a new television. The hot tub and the new TV are excellent investments in the welfare of those kids, don't you think?

Posted by webs0080 at 7:49 AM

July 4, 2003

Thanks For The Memories

During the summer of 1989, I rode my Laverda from Italy to Berlin and back, stopping on the way back. Several images come to mind:

1. On the autobahn from W. Germany to Berlin, rows of Trabants would queue up for service at the service stations where Westerners could spend only Western money. Presumably, the mechanic would replace spark plugs and set the points and send them on their way.

2. In East Berlin, I visited the Zeiss Optik shop (my host was a photographer in Wedding and had a friend purchase all his darkroom stuff there). The only other customers at the Zeiss shop were Yanks in uniform, shopping for binoculars -- no doubt to gaze upon the East from Checkpoint Charlie.

2a. In E. Berlin, I met several kids my age for coffee. When I asked them where they lived, they gestured toward blocks of grey concrete highrises, which continued to the horizon.

2b. At the department store, people would leave their old shoes in the stairwell when they bought new ones -- perhaps for their needier countrypersons.

3. Getting a visa to visit Czechoslovakia was impossible to do in the States back then. They wanted to *hold my passport* for *three weeks*, to which I said "f*** that". Instead, I visited the Czech consulate in Berlin -- only a short wait and presto!

4. Riding through E. Germany to Czechoslovakia, I met a gaggle of Danzigers -- perhaps 20 on ten bikes MZ 150 and 250's. The bikes were dangeriously overloaded with luggage, blankets, etc -- fellow Americans can imagine the Beverly Hillbillies truck, but with two wheels. I chatted with the kids about the Laverda -- they were very keen to know how fast it went -- and I asked them where they were headed with all the stuff. They looked nervously at each other and said "Budapest". I thought nothing of it until I got back to Italy and read that Hungary had opened its border with W. Germany and about 10k Germans were emigrating daily. A little slice of history which I shall never forget.

5. En route to Prague, every time I came to a hill of any mentionable size, I would pass a convoy of blue smoke producing, barely moving Trabants, each of which was seriously overloaded with passengers and possessions. On the flat parts of the autobahn, both my SF750 and the Trabants would approach the speed limit, but hills were a formidable obstacle to the Trabants.

6. Prague was amazingly beautiful before the arrival of 45k Americans. And Czechs *liked* motorcycles. Only in Italy did I feel as welcome as a motorcyclist. My lodging was in one of those concrete block highrise complexes which surrounded E. Bloc capitals. A liter bottle of Pilsner was included in the price. Each night, my host would ask me if I wanted to change money. Evidently, buying Western currency (even at many times the official rate) is an excellent way of saving for the future when inflation is high.

6a. As it turns out, on my last day in Prague, I finally spent all the money I had had to acquire upon entry. I also needed to fill the Laverda with gas in order to make it to the Austrian border. On the street, men were constantly calling out "Cambio, change, wechsel", and so I took one up on their offer. Petrol had been expensive in Germany and so I changed 10 marks (about 5 USD at the time). I got a *pile* of notes, half of which I still have! The other half purchased fuel, motor oil, a towel, magazines, souvernirs (Lada and Skoda keyrings) and some miscellaneous hardware. I bought everything I thought would have even the slightest amount of value at every roadstop from Prague to the Austrian border.

6b. The department store in Prague was a trip: they had racks and racks of shirts, but all were the same style and size. Same deal with hardware: when I was there, they had hubcaps and 6mm screws -- and little else! Shoppers would load up with whatever they were stocking, perhaps in order to barter later.

7. Ljubljiana is a beautiful city; from Italy, several of us took an overnight trip and met (by pure chance) some Benellistas -- they showed us a great time.

There is a little irony that each of the countries that bothered to stamp my passport in 1989 no longer exists!

Happy July 4th!

Posted by webs0080 at 8:51 AM

June 13, 2003

Baker's Square

So we go to Baker's Square -- a place that I have a hard time imagining that we would go unless we had a coupon for free food. Not merely a 2 for 1, but an honest to goodness free pie. The help was straight out of Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

"Are you here for a pie tonight?" cracked the voice of the apron-wearing, pimple-faced juvenile helper.

After the senior assistant shows the juvenile how to ring up a gift coupon, he goes to select us a pie.

"We reserved an apple."

"I think we have plenty of apple pies, so I'll just pick one."

He approaches the baker's rack with a red box. He spies an apple pie with a disgustingly burnt crust. He looks back at me, who have been silent throughout the transaction. He sees me see him eyeing the burnt pie. He reaches instead for a blond and perfect pie behind it. Let the other asshole customer -- the one he doesn't help or the one who doesn't watch him select the pies -- get the burnt pie.

Damn. "This kid is going into management."

Posted by webs0080 at 10:42 PM