Monday, July 31, 2006

At Insomnia’s Source

Finally, I figured out why I can’t sleep at night. After I wrote up last night’s entry, it was after one in the morning, and I figured it was a good time to go to bed; Seven AM comes mighty early these days, especially when I’m playing Dad to two dueling tornadoes bent on destroying the house before Mommy gets home.

When I laid down, intent on sleeping for a change, I laid there instead, staring at the ceiling and listening to the baby monitor on Kara’s side of the bed hiss with white noise from the fans and the open windows in all of the upstairs rooms. Part of the problem is that the monitor is always set at such a high volume, as if we’re both stone deaf and the only way we can hear him wake up is if the sound waves actually grab us by the shoulders and give us a shake. I'm a light sleeper at night, and the slightest thing can wake me up, from someone driving by two streets over or even solar wind bouncing off of the moon and striking the roof. Kara keeps the monitor's volume too high night after night, so I either have to get up and turn it down or suffer through it. I can hear him breath. I can hear him clear his throat, and you know that Rapid Eye Movement you get in deep sleep? Well, through the monitor set on high volume, it sounds like two people playing ping-pong with a pair of grapes. Sometimes I hear him think.

So, I listen to it, counting his breaths, trying to guess what some of the random noises are, and all the while, waiting for Matthew to wake up for his midnight feeding. It is my job to provide sustenance for the little guy at the witching hour, and I don’t mind it, as I’ve said before: It’s quite, easy, and it makes me feel like I’m being a caring father. Plus, it’s been deemed my job by those that lord over doling out jobs around here, and I laid there waiting to do it like someone who wakes up two minutes before his alarm clock goes off in the morning and decides that closing his eyes for two more minutes won’t make him less tire, so he gets up early. That was me, laying last night there waiting to go to work. It was time, after one, and he should have been getting up any minute… just wait for it, almost there… but it didn’t come. Every time I heard the slightest rustling of his sheets or the insignificant squeak of a crib spring, I would assume that it was time to whip up a milk shake for him and get it down his gullet before he starves to death.

But wait, all is quiet again; Matty’s just rolling over. Okay, just a few more minutes at least.

After another hour, I couldn’t stand it in bed any longer. I got up and continued my family tree research on the Internet, desperately trying to locate my roots… but since the vast majority of them either didn’t write anything down or couldn’t write at all, it has been a difficult process. Perhaps they just hated the bureaucracy of the government more than I do and vowed not to fill out any census paperwork… just like I don’t. Of course, pointing a squirrel gun at the census taker might have been slightly more acceptable in those days than it is today, and I’m sure the local sheriff wouldn’t necessarily turn a blind eye to the tom foolery of the kinfolk down the road a piece. But there has to be a reason why I can’t find a single family member on my father’s side. My mother’s side? There’s too much information. They were rich, prosperous, owned lots of land and the proliferated like rabbits so the family tree looks like a freakin’ Sequoia.

So, I was up until 4am, clacking away the hours on the computer, wide awake in limbo when he finally woke up and was ready for something to snack on. After it was all said and done for him and he was sawing little logs with a little plastic saw, I went to bed and was asleep before my head hit the pillow, with the satisfaction of a job well done.

I don’t want to blame a little seven-month-old who never did nuthin’ to nobody, but I can’t help but wonder the kind of sleep I would get at night if I wasn’t on the schedule to give him a bottle between 11pm and 5am. I can only imagine, because as it is now, I can’t get a wink of sleep if I know that there is something before me that I have to do.

It’s like waiting for the other bootie to drop, but now that I know the problem, at least I can work on a solution.

What Happened to the Day?

Sometimes I wonder where the day goes. It was just here this morning. I woke up and saw it, bright and full of possibilities. There were lawns to mow, toys to put away, dishes to do, more toys to put away (still), there’s that dust on the blinds that’s been bothering me for a couple of weeks, and I’m pretty disappointed that there are weeds in my planters… and don’t get me started about what the heat wave did to my poor fern that I’ve loved and cared for these past six years. Laying in bed this morning, I had ambition, drive, motivation.

So what happened? Why is it just past midnight and I accomplished only a few things on my mental list of responsibilities for today?

I get caught in so many distractions that eat away the hours. Read the news sites, catch up on why Lohan got chewed out by the movie studio execs, find out that if you’re a celebrity like Mel Gibson, you can get away with pretty much anything, do some actual, honest-to-God work for a change, watch “Good Eats,” a cooking show I TiVo’d last night (if only I cooked), brush the dog, be allowed to sleep in to nearly 10am (I did the 4am feeding when Kara stuck the deal: “I’ll let you sleep in as late as you want if you get up and feed him” Deal!). However, “as late as I wanted to” translates into 10am when Natalie decided enough was enough, old man, rise and shine or I’m going to pile-drive my knees into your flabby unguarded stomach… which she did anyway. Some mornings, I rue that I didn’t put on a cup the night before, as she isn’t the most accurate semi-pro wrestler on the toddler circuit. The joke was on her however, as she proceeded to fling herself off of the bed with a crashing thump. “I’m okay,” she announced, rubbing her head. There goes the third grade, so I rolled over, back asleep. I think Matthew made an appearance, but I was having one of those “I’m graduating from high school today and I can’t figure out why there’s no pumpkins to wear” dreams that I needed to finish, and I don’t recall if he was actually in bed with me at some point or if he was giving the commencement speech.

I cleaned my office desk, which was a satisfying achievement, and probably one of the highlights of the day, as I am a most organized pack rat. I’ll save everything, but it’d better be filed under its proper heading or life as I know it is not worth living. Plus, the desk was getting a gamey patina that began to resemble the utter room at the milking plant. Kara feeds Matthew in this chair and inadvertent little drops of milk have formed solid craters on the wood that needed to be scoured (for those that are suddenly grossed out, I’m talking about formula, not breast milk… and grow up, it’s natural), along with their co-conspirators, a half-dozen bottle rings in an artsy pattern that make one corner of the desk appear as though I’m hosting the Olympics.

Natalie and I made sure all of the pens and pencils in the cup on my desk still worked… and she wanted to do it twice, so I had her go through the rejects a second time to rescue any that were wrongly outcast. She found one that she deemed useable and I notice now that all of the pens in the cup are scattered around in a way I didn’t leave them, so she must have gone through them a third time later in the day. Then I filed all of the old bills to make way for all of the new ones. It’s the end of the month, which means bill day.

It was mild today, the first day in two weeks I didn’t have to listen to the air conditioner compressor kick on in the attic, a sound similar to a shovel full of dollar bills being flushed down the toilet while a bucket of coins is flung into the street on the hour. According to Southern California Edison the sound of a shovel full of money equates to exactly $485.40… or roughly the sound of a BMW payment.

But what did I get for my 1,963 Kilowatt-hours used for the month of July? Peace and quiet, for one. I didn’t have to hear Kara tell me that it is hot every 15 minutes and that we should turn on the air, though we did go through the timeless ritual of playing ping-pong with the thermostat. It’s a wonderful game I learned from my parents years ago, they were masters at the illusion that it was the same temperature in the house all day, but instead, it was you, and you alone, who was getting hotter.

I called it “the creep.” Every time I walked by the thermostat, which is conveniently located in the hallway so I passed it numerous times during the day, I’d bump the dial up a hair, just slightly, perhaps a quarter of a degree, maybe a half. So, in order to raise the temperature of the house three degrees, from a cool and breezy 78 degrees up to a tepid and clammy 81 or 82 degrees—just warm enough to keep the A/C off but not hot enough to elicit attention—I’d have to tap the dial about a dozen times. There’d always be a baseline to watch for, that fine border that, on one side, the air is on but on the other side, it is off. Ride that border and you can stretch out a lot of “off” time for the A/C.

Cheap, cheap, you say? Yep, but when I get a bill for $485.40, I wonder what I could have done with that money. Had I invested it in a mildly yielding annuity, in 50 years, it would be $62,131.20 (assuming the value doubles every seven years, which it has the last 70 or so). Even while I was doing the bills, Kara threatened to turn on the air, to which I poorly punned that she was conditioned to think she needed the air, a remark she must not have heard… then again, it wasn’t that clever so perhaps she was merely ignoring me. I threatened a murderous rampage if that little switch was flipped to the On position, as the last thing someone doing the bills wants to hear is the A/C turned on, especially since I had just grumbled about the fleecing we got from Old Man Edison.

But, that’s not the worst of it. Get a load of how we’re getting screwed by the electric company, yet another company in a long parade of outstretched hands with the purpose of keeping me from millionaire status. Not only are they enforcing rolling blackouts during heavy peak hours in Southern California and have they suggested you place those control devices on your A/C so they can turn them off at their slightest whim, but they’re charging me more per Kilowatt-hour in the Summer as they did in the Spring. That’s right: It is a sliding scale of payment depending on how much I use. The more I use, the more it costs me per unit.

Here it is: In April, I paid 14.8 cents per Kilowatt-hour. I used 620 that month and my bill was $92.21. May’s charges were $106.28 for 679 Kilowatt-hours equaling 15.6 cents for each unit. In June, I nearly doubled my usage to 1,166 units to pay $232.03, or 19.8 cents each. So I used 42 percent less energy in May as compared to June but I was charged a 22 percent higher rate for each unit in June… just because it is Summer. However, for July, thanks to the heat wave and the perpetual use of the A/C at all hours of the day and blessed night, I used 1,963 Kilowatt-hours and paid $485.40 for them, or 24.7 cents each. Comparing the charges in April with the charges in July, I’m paying 41 percent more per unit of energy because of a change in the calendar.

For comparison’s sake, I dragged out the January bill to see how Old Man Winter stacked up to the Summer months. Surprisingly enough, I used 834 Kilowatt-hours of energy and paid $128.14, or 15.3 cents per unit, 39 percent less than in July. I can’t wait until next month when we get another heat wave.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I guess I’m a little bent that I have to pay this bill and perhaps there’s a tinge of I-told-you-so-ism in this that serves me right. I admit, I like to be comfortable, especially when it is 115 degrees outside, and our German Shepard has melted into a Shih-Tzu (which is opposed to her usually being a Shih-Tz-Head), so I caught myself turning on the air more than once or twice in the last few weeks.

What I’d really like to do is get solar paneling on the roof so I can then tell the electric company where they can put their energy, but at the cost of solar paneling, we’d have to live here for 40 years to make it worth the money.

I guess I’d better get back to work to make some more money to keep the Man cool.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Best Beer I Ever Had

As Homer Simpson would say: "Beer is the cause of and solution to all of life's problems."

I don't remember having my first beer, but I know I didn't like it. It probably tasted bitter, sour, sharp, and for that reason, I don't like ales, as I prefer an amber over anything else, and the darker beers are best for my tastes. But back in the day, I never used to like beer, I never drank it. And it isn’t as if it shares the some lofty requirement of the acquired tastes of caviar or lobster, I just never cared for the taste, and I preferred something that had more of a kick to it: Southern Comfort (part of the reason I can't drink it today with out invoking the gag reflex).

Growing up, very rarely did I ever see my dad drink a beer (I can only vaguely think of one time and it was some obscure beer given to him if memory serves right) so because of that, there was never any around the house. But there was plenty of other liquors, but I just wasn’t exposed to beer until after I started college. Well, that’s not to say beer wasn’t around when I was in high school, as it was; I just never drank any of it.

When finances reared their ugly head soon after I moved out on my own in 1992, I found myself standing at the crossroads of a decision in the supermarket: Do I spend my last 20 bucks on some grain-based alcohol and forever hate myself for it the next day or do I save half of that for groceries and rent and grab a case of cheap beer instead. The whole point was to get lit, and after the first beer goes down your throat like a chimney broom, the taste of the other improve. With logic like that, cheap beer won every time, and when you drink a dozen or so in a single day, the taste will grow on you like... well, cheap beer. I soon discovered that it’s only beer, after all, and it doesn’t take a culinary genius to appreciate what a good beer can offer: taste, flavor, texture. A good beer, if you've ever had one, is a complex combination of aromas, bitters, hops, grains and the like, and quality brews allow themselves to be compared to the same standards of fine wine, as it has matriculated from the cooler in the rec room where beer-gutted sports obsessed Neanderthals chug cheap fermented grains and stare blankly into flickering TV sets to finding its way into fine dining rooms, cradled in crystal, esteemed by those with admiration for the finer brews in the world.

This isn’t about any of those kinds of beers, as I don’t generally drink the finest grain beverages on the market today. Again, I don’t want to allow myself to afford it. In college, when funds were constricted beyond a pauper’s paycheck (after taxes of course), I settled for the cheapest beer available, and that was usually Miller Light, Rolling Rock, Milwaukee’s Best, Ballantine’s (it’s three cardinal principles, Purity, Body and Flavor became my fraternity pledge class’s motto) or a locally produced Lucky Lager (which was less than four dollars for a case); its claim to fame was that each bottle was inexplicably only 11 ounces, and under the cap were riddles that got more difficult as the night wore on.

These beers, which played a principle role for entertainment in my college years, were not lavish quality beers but instead beers of circumstance, association with the memories and the times that I shared with them and my friends. Here are some of the best beers I’ve ever had, not because the quality of the beer was memorable (and most of them I don’t even remember what I was drinking), but because they were instrumental in creating the memories.

Fort Smith, Arkansas. My friend David and I drove back to Arkansas in the summer of 1993 to visit our good friend Scott at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. We drove straight through the night, stopping only for gas, and we got there in 23 hours and 45 minutes. I don’t really remember a whole lot of what we did, as we spent a lot of time either drinking beer or getting beer… and I don’t think Scott even went to school, or work for that matter.

During our week-long stay we paid a visit to Weidman's Old Fort Brewery in Fort Smith, where we proceeded to remain there all day long, talking, laughing and enjoying what the brewery had to offer, which was a seemingly endless chain of beer glasses, emptied, filled and emptied again. It was located upstairs in a quant old bar, and the three of us were the only ones in the place (it was a Tuesday or Wednesday after all). The bathroom was outside along a catwalk that crossed the roof of the brewery below. It was a great day with great friends, a time I will remember up until the brain cells that retain that memory succumb to the affects of the memory they hold. The brewery closed down in 1997, or so I’m told.

Calafia, Mexico. What beer expedition wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Mexico. Since we went down there several times in the course of my college years, I don’t exactly recall the date or the circumstance of the visit, as each trip melds to the others in my memory, but it was in the early 90s. Depending on the instance, the usual gang was there; One such trip, Kara and my fraternity brother Robert and I piled into his VW Sirocco and trekked south of the border. No doubt, among the usual haunts in Rosarito we would take the road farther south to a spot on the precipice of the Pacific ocean called Calafia (, a hotel, restaurant and bar carved into the cliffs over looking the ocean. Tables and chairs occupied small alcoves and a Spanish galleon was permanently buoyed in the water, acting as a dance floor. Coronas, Dos XX, and Pacificos were the faire of the afternoon. Don’t ask how we got back to our hotel…or if we even had a hotel… sometimes we didn’t; I don’t remember.

Big Bear, California. Octoberfest is a big deal in Big Bear, occupying each weekend of the title month every year. Kara and I went with our friends Dan and Jeneal twice in consecutive years, 2000 and 2001, long before Natalie and Matthew were born… or even thought of. I don’t remember the beer, but there was a lot of it, a damn lot of it, and each stein (I mean, a poor man’s stein: a giant plastic cup) was 36 ounces each…that’s three beers, and I had eight or nine of those throughout the day (we opened the place at noon and closed it at midnight). You sit community style on big long tables, drinking, singing and dancing to Polka music. An older lady at our table lived locally, went home and brought back a pot of beef stew, and the Chicken Dance and the Polka was the entertainment of the night…and beers. Our transportation to and from our hotel was a repurposed Swiss troop transport taxi, a Unimog if you know what that is, and thanks to the stew as an appetizer, I was quite hungry when we got back to our hotel room. Kara and I ordered a pizza at two in the morning, and there’s nothing more refreshing to wake up after a binger in the clear mountain air, full of fall foliage and the sounds of nature.

San Francisco, California. A week after returning from Arkansas and two weeks after one of the many trips to Mexico, Robert and Rico called me with the idea of spending the weekend in San Francisco (no, I don’t think I had a job at that point), visiting one of Rico’s high school friends. We didn’t need a whole lot of convincing to visit a city virtually for free… free ride up, free place to sleep and the big city at our disposal. Robert, Rico and I (affectionately known by our fraternity brothers and friends as The Three Rs) walked around the wharf area and stopped at Pier 19… or 29 or 9, whatever… it was well before noon and we heard a band warming up in the bar upstairs so we wandered up, blended in with the goings on (we weren’t yet 21 if I remember right), found a seat by the windows and made friends with the server. Soon the band started, the place filled up and we stayed there all day, literally 10 hours of music, beer and strangers. A group of biker cops on vacation were at the table behind us, and I remember rounds of beers being bought back and forth between our groups. It was a great time. The music probably was terrible if I were to hear it with a clear sense of sobriety, but at the time, it was the greatest group ever.

It seems that massive amounts of beer leads to hungry stomachs, and we got it in our minds that it would be appropriate to have Chinese food in Chinatown. Of course, we had no idea where that was. So we hired a guide, a homeless guy and his friend were selling a pair of women’s shoes on the street, and we offered him and his friend dinner if they showed us the way to Chinatown. They got us there and we had authentic Chinese food in San Francisco… but afterwards, they suggested we go to a dance club for more drinks. I think they saw a cash cow and wanted to make a night of it; can’t blame them. Little did we know they took us to a club on the corner of Market and Castro, and needless to say there were more men in there than women. I actually saw chaps, live, in action… and it wasn’t in a western, and underwear was not invited to the party. Deciding that wasn’t our speed, we gave the homeless guy money for a cab and we left (which in hindsight seemed stupid. I mean, he’s homeless, where is a cab going to take him?).

Other highlights: Robert riding down Lombard Street on the roof of the rental car, borrowing a ten-speed for a ride around the block, and other such debaucheries that only beer can allow.

Well, there are literally hundreds more such stories that I may or may not remember, but if I’m around the right combination of people, those stories start to come out: The time I split my head open after being thrown in a pool and drank beer in the bathroom of the hospital holding a compress to my forehead… and there’s the time I spent the entire St. Patrick’s Day in “The Beer Bar” on campus, little knowing that I had to work that night at the coffee shop, so with the help of Rico and Robert we completed the shift, blitzed… hilarity ensued with the owner showed up unexpectedly…. And there are the Mammoth Mountain trips, the Road Trips to Nowhere, the dozens of parties at the Red Door, and the hundreds of memories that I probably wouldn’t have ever had were it not for one of the oldest drinks on Earth.

The best beer story of all happened on January 25, 1992: the night I met Kara.

Thank you beer, as I probably would never have had the guts to do it all by myself.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Boy am I in Hot Water

For those of you waiting on bated breath for the saga of the water heater replacement, you can wait no more. Today was the day, and let me first start by telling you that there is no more satisfying a shower in the world than a nice and steamy one taken right after installing a new water heater. It is the ultimate culmination of a job done to perfection.

Was it easy? Sure, it seemed so, but nonetheless, it was fraught with the usual roadblocks that I’m quite accustomed to encountering on anything I try and do. Before, I’ve lamented on the potential ease of the project: two water pipes, a gas pipe and a pressure relief valve. Presto, steam baths for everyone.

Well, the obstacles began to mount the moment I stepped into Home Depot to simply buy a water heater. The specifications on the side of the box indicated it weighted 150lbs and it also said that it shouldn’t be transported on its side (and there was an image of a station wagon with the water heater sticking out of the back and a big black line through the drawing). Granted 150lbs. is not that heavy, but it is awkward and I was in a mood where I shouldn't have to do things by myself in a store crawling with orange-aproned “professionals.” I asked the first guy I saw to give me a hand. He came back with “That’s not my section.” Okay. “Maybe you can go get someone whose section that is.” He moseyed off in a paid-by-the-hour leisurely way that made my teeth grind. Strike one.

Fifteen minutes later, I know all there is to know about every single water heater in the aisle, as I’ve read their labels, compared their capacities and contrasted their specifications. Impatient, I step in front of the next orange apron I see, forcing him to stop and acknowledge me. Put out by the brazen impropriety of a customer who wants to spend his money, he mutters the usual “Can I help you?” shtick with all the enthusiasm of a death-row inmate in charge of keeping the electric chair properly maintained.

“Yeah, I need some help with a water heater.”

He stepped to the side of me to continue on his way, and with what appeared to be almost an afterthought, he answers, “I’ll send someone over.” Strike Two.

Fifteen more minutes pass and I was still standing there, leaning on the water heater box, wishing I had a Sharpie in my pocket so I could write on the box, in bold letters: “Tired of waiting, you can find me at Lowe’s, you guys suck.”

Fed up, I pushed the water heater into the very middle of the aisle, so everyone who walked down that aisle had to walk around it... and I hoped that whoever's job it was to reset the store later in the day would see it and say to themselves, "Well, there goes another customer we lost because our staff is lazy and unprofessional." So, on my way out of the store, I give it one last shot. An older woman appeared and I recited my line: “I need some help with a water heater.” But then, since I was well beyond reproach, I added: “You’re the third and last person I’m going to ask. If I don’t get help from you right now, I’m going to leave and never come back.” I felt bad dumping on her, a random employee who happened down the wrong aisle at the wrong time and ran into me, but I have become extremely tired of the lack of service of “big box” stores that know as soon as an upset customer leaves vowing never to return, he passes on his way out, a new customer who has never been there before. I’m sure it is quantified under “customer turnover rate” and there’s some accepted value that I was nearly apart of, but it is an unacceptable side affect of capitalism. Half of me wishes for the Great Depression II; at least I'd get some good service for a change.

A note of clarification: I like Lowe’s better. It’s cleaner, brighter and better organized. On top of which, they turn the a/c on… at least they have one, but I wanted to get a water heater that matched the one I was replacing to ensure that everything would fit and nothing new or unknown would become a factor. Home Depot carries GE water heaters, sadly.

Okay, so she marches me back over to the water heater aisle, profusely apologizing for every last person employed by Home Depot worldwide and how, since she can’t lift the water heater herself (she claimed to be a floor stocker, whatever that is) she will personally get someone immediately. “Don’t go away,” she said huffing off in search of someone she called Jeffery.

Finally, some service. She returns with what must have been Jeffery, and you know what they did? They laid it down on the cart. I pointed to the station wagon picture with the black line through it, exclaiming that it isn’t supposed to be laid down, otherwise I could have done it myself, and she says that it is just there for shipping purposes and if you’re careful, you can lay them down all you want. Well, damn. If I knew it wouldn't have exploded if it was laid down, I could have left with the water heater a half-hour ago. Oh well. So, I pay for it (with a $30-off coupon I found in the aisle from the blood-sucking Gas Company) and I leave, finally. Wrestling with it into the back of the truck (who’s idea was it to make the truck bed higher!?!), I brought it home and let the fun begin.

I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say the best method of getting a heavy partially-filled-with-water water heater off of a two-foot platform by yourself is via kicking, swearing and then just let gravity take its course, crashing down where it lands. This, of course, was the one day that all of my neighbors were busy: one was at work, another was hosting a birthday party for his 11-year old and another had just brought home their new baby… today. So, I take a two-man job and tackle it myself, which is a pretty usual faire with any of my projects. It is inevitable that you’ll lose some water in the process of shoving it off of the platform, but the behemoth was on terra firma in 32-feet-per-second and out of the garage with a slue of new dings and dents. What did I care? It was destined to live forever in a landfill, the Purgatory of appliances, so it's not like I should be careful with it.

The drywall on the platform was so saturated with water that the legs of the water heater had started to sink, and sliding it off of the platform was nearly impossible. It started to dig holes, and I bent the metal lip on one side. Back at stupid Home Depot, I bought some plywood to screw down into the drywall to act as support for the new water heater. Baring any help from my neighbors, I enlisted Kara’s assistance in lifting up the new one onto the platform. It was heavy and awkward, and halfway up, Kara says, “I’m not really doing anything,” which is just the one thing my hernia wanted to hear, but I was able to set it on my knee (where there is now a bruise) so I could readjust.

To make a long story longer, everything attached like it should. The pilot light lit, water filled the tank and I strapped it to the wall. I replaced its little insulating winter coat and hooked up the vent at the top. There were no Poseidon Adventures, no Titanics, no Towering Infernos and no Earthquakes. The install went surprisingly smooth, as I think my “bad time of it” was taken care of by the lackadaisical ineptness of the folks at Home Depot. I guess I have them to thank, because if they were on the ball and attentive to the needs of a $500 customer, it would have been a nightmare to install it, I would have had to call in someone to fix what I broke and we would have been taking cold showers for a week. Instead, steam showers for one and all.

“What?” you ask. “Did you get a permit from the city? You know you have to get a permit from the city to install a water heater.” Like hell I will. As if I need some slack-jawed governmental official to take three days to saunter out to my house, where I will no doubt have to be home from 8am to 5pm on that particular day (but he won’t show up until 4:59), to tell me that I’ve installed the thing correctly. That is a safety net for idiots who don’t know you’re supposed to strap it to the wall or that the hot water goes into the hot tap and the cold in the cold or that the pilot light isn’t supposed to shoot flames out onto your conveniently located cans of open paint thinner and gasoline. I know I installed it correctly, as there is no gas escaping, no water leaking and the hot water comes out of the facet when I want it to, and I’m not going to pay 20 bucks for said privilege. So there, Take that Government, you fat-bellied mediocre-minded underachiever.

Of course, all the while I’m in the garage up to my knees in water heater mayhem, Kara and the kids have escaped harm and help to go shopping and the phone is ringing in the house. It was our friends, Scott and Melanie, who were patiently waiting at the children’s museum in LaHabra for us to show up and join them for an afternoon of fun, frivolity and food. We had everything all ready for Sunday. Kara said Sunday. The calendar here in my office says Saturday, but Kara said Sunday… it’s obvious where my loyalty lies, right? Who am I to trust a calendar written by my own forgetful hand over the razor sharp brain of my loving wife? So, we totally dropped the ball, and what is worse, is that they brought all of the picnic foods and servings for us too. What flakes we are, but I doubt their day was ruined… at least I hope not, as I don’t think we’re the type of people whose lack of attendance is particularly devastating to anyone. I doubt they said, “Ryan and Kara didn’t show up. Let’s go home. I’m depressed.” However, I still felt like a heel.

But I have hot water!!

*Sorry, no photos. It’s hard enough to drag a water heater out of your garage by yourself without having to capture the experience in Kodachrome. Use your imagination.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Nice Day for a Walk

So, I’m an idiot. You knew that, right? But did you know the severity of my affliction? Last week, when I first dropped off my truck for its lift and wheel/tires, I walked home. I didn’t really think anything of it and I enjoyed the unusual jaunt through the city on a street I've only seen from behind the wheel. It was early, around 9am, so it wasn’t too hot, but the shop is just over three miles from my house, so it was a long haul home. I didn’t mind too much, and I even met a gaggle of old men staving off the ravages of time by trying to stay active; one offered some advice on crossing the street, and I think I heard him call me a whipper-snapper but he might have been referring to the ginger snaps at the old-folks’ home on the next block. I brought my camera to take some pictures of the truck up on the lift, so I snapped a few shots of various things I saw on my way home that probably would only interest me (so I’ll spare you from looking at them, aside from the cool tree at the top of this page). Taking pictures gave me something to do besides plod through the miles like a homeless guy with nowhere to go.

So, why did I have to return the truck to the shop? In the vast scheme of things (meaning my whole life as seen as one big fishbowl) I had to take the truck back because I’m destined to do things the hard way. If it’s easy, it’s wrong. This used to only encompass my personal projects, but lately, I’ve noticed that it is expanding to encapsulate projects that I’m associated with. Take for example, the water heater leakage (it is leaking in more places now than ever, and short of hiring a Dutch kid with big fingers, it will have to be replaced).

Last week, I noticed that the truck now has a slight shimmy at around 45 miles per hour, and being the perfectionist that I am, I knew that this would bug me every time I drove that speed, so I took it back on Saturday morning. The manager, with whom I’ve been dealing with the whole time, was out because his wife had the nerve to disrupt my plans that morning and go into labor. Really, it was his third kid, did he have to be at the hospital when I was having a crisis with my truck? So, I dealt with another guy who didn’t know me, my truck, or my situation. He said drive it for a couple of days and maybe it will correct itself. I found that hard to believe, but what really sealed the deal for me was that he chucked me on the shoulder. There is nothing I like less than getting chucked on the shoulder, and perhaps on that short list are people who, while they’re shaking my hand, grab onto my forearm with their other hand, like I’m going to run away.

Much like my fears of failure, my doubts about the shimmy came to fruition, of course, and it didn’t miraculously heal itself in the 150 miles I drove it over the weekend, so I returned it to the shop this morning to have it fixed…at least, it’d better be. With that kind of financial outlay, I demand good service, and I can be a business's worst nightmare if something doesn’t go right or my needs aren’t fully satisfied. Ask Bank of America, when I demanded they return two years worth of monthly charges to my checking account because they didn’t bother to tell me that checking was free when you had direct deposit. They did it. And I still switched to another bank. However, when it comes to my cars, I’m especially picky and usually insatiable when it comes to satisfaction.

I dropped off the truck, gave them the key, explained the situation (again) and left. Since the city library was only a block away, I stopped in to poke around a little in the bookshop and to get a few ideas for the city-history-themed bathroom renovation I plan to start this weekend (definitely more on that project to come, for sure), then I started the final leg of the trek home. I slung my camera strap over my left shoulder and headed south.

While I was ambling my way toward the old homestead, I thought it to be a good idea to take a detour through the historical homes district of my town. It was only two blocks east from the library (East of Eden said the bibliophile… oh that’s rich on several New Yorker magazine-type levels), and I would still be headed south, toward my house. Not a problem. Word to the wise: Back in the day, it seems city planners rarely allowed streets to conveniently intersect each other at right angles like they do today, and a map of this neighborhood would have more sinewous lines on it than an old lady’s leg. After a couple of twists and turns, there came a point when I didn’t know where I was, and I’ve lived in this town for six years. Standing at the corner of Clue street and Less avenue, I didn’t recognize anything.

Just keep going south, I told myself. As long as I’m headed south I can’t go wrong. Of course, if the street I’m on doesn’t continue south anymore but deadends instead, which way do I go? And if the street it intersects with is curved, do I go to the left where it curves northward and take a chance that another southbound street will crop up or do I go to the right and backtrack slightly west?

All the time, the temperature of the day, which started rather mild by comparison to previous days… all the time I’m out there, walking around on my pilgrimage, all the while, it is getting hotter and hotter. My shirt was sopping wet, and my rubber shoes felt slippery on the blacktop of the street. Every exposed piece of skin is glistening, and not in the good way like some bathing beauties bronzing themselves on the beach, but in that sweaty-guy-who-can’t-afford-a-car bad kind of way that makes people not want to stand too close to you. I should have been pushing a shopping cart filled with a rag-tag collection of kids and yelling at cars as they zoomed by.

My sunglasses even were speckled with drips of sweat that had been flung from my body, and I had that soggy feeling every place an appendage met the core of my body. Saying I was uncomfortable would be an understatement, but let’s just point out that once you're home, taking off your underwear before your shower is easier when it is dry and not clinging to your soppy skin. I had to roll it off like an ace bandage. Yeah, nice image but an unfortunate fun fact of my day.

So, I took what could have been a nice 3.1-mile saunter in the coolness of the morning and turned it into a 3.7 trudge on a Trail of Tears forced march. The bad part is that I didn’t leave until noon and I didn’t get home until 1:30, at the hottest part of the day, nearly 100 degrees, and it should have been a clue for me that it was too hot for a walk because there were no old guys out. And here’s a fun way of gauging the outside temperature in a suburban environment: For every old guy you see on his daily walk down to the doughnut shop for the paper and a cruller, subtract 10 degrees from 100. No old guys plodding around? It’s 100 degrees out. And for every Asian woman you see with an umbrella and wearing black polyester pants, add one degree over 100. Neather of both? It's exactly 100 degrees.

Well, next time, I’ll call a cab. Nah, you’re right, I’m much too cheap to pay for a cab; plus, to me, sitting in the backseat of a cab is akin to licking the toilet seat at a construction site Port-A-John.

But again, that’s just me. I'd rather walk throught he furnace of the day and peel my underware off than consider burning my entire outfit as a sure-fire method of killing the germs you can get from the backseat of a taxi.

Monday, July 24, 2006


I imagine if Natalie or Matthew would ever have a Rosebud in their life, you know, something they fondly remember from their childhood that they suddenly can’t live without, it is somewhere in this picture. In a magnificent stroke of energy and ambition, I decided to empty out the garage of all of their toys—puzzles, plastic shapes, and games indefinitely impounded in storage until either Natalie gets too old for them or Matthew gets old enough for them, whichever comes first. There were four boxes in the garage, in addition to several more boxes of various stuffed animals hiding in numerous corners of rooms we rarely tread. While I was at it, I poured out a couple of tubs of flotsam and jetsam that collect in the bonus room, or the playroom, as Natalie refers to it… then again, she refers to several rooms in our house as “playroom” so that doesn’t narrow it down any. I suppose that is the motive for tonight’s evacuation of toys and all of the paraphernalia that goes along with them, as I don’t want to have that kind of house where every room looks like a different department of Toy’s R Us, where all of the toys are opened and scattered down the aisle as if a tornado recently visited. Since I seem to be the only one in the house that enjoys walking into a room without the fear of stumbling on some doll or breaking a toe on the corner of a Little People high-rise condominium complete with helipad, coffee bar, bank with optional ATM and attached housing association office, then it was up to me to cull the herd… well, it was up to me to get the ball rolling and then toss it to Kara to do the final selection.

I don’t swear much, especially now that I’ve got a language sponge mimicking my every word, but when it’s three in the morning and I have to break my toe back the other direction so it straightens out again, some explicatives are bound to escape in the still of the early morning. Of course, for weeks thereafter, I never realized how many times it was possible to crash my littlest toe into the corners of tables, the baseboards in the hall, the scale in the bathroom or a chair leg in the kitchen until after I broke it and I’m too cheap to see a doctor about it. Then again, Dr. Rico told me they would only tape it to the one next to it and send me on my way; I could do that and save myself the co-pay, but lacking the proper tape of course, I soon discovered that electrical tape doesn’t stick to my foot so I suffered with every step.

Back to the youthful debris filling my front room: I am hoping that the pile destined for Good Will will grow large in the ensuing days that it will take for this project to be finished. It doesn’t help that Natalie is quite content to sit in the middle of it all reminiscing about all of her long-lost toys she played with when “she was young.” So, I thought this photo to be appropriate today, as it reminds me of the “ah-ha” moment in the last scene of “Citizen Kane” when we discover that the whole movie was about a sled (What? I ruined the ending for you? Too bad. It’s a 65-year-old movie and if you haven’t seen it by now, what are you waiting for?). Somewhere in this picture, no doubt, is something Natalie will remember when she is my age as the one toy she once cherished with all her heart but lost forever. I’m sure she’ll find it on eBay 2030.

Sure, we’ll keep some toys like my parents did (though I have yet to see them again), but there’s no way we’re keeping them all. However, I’m already looking forward to the day I get to visit Natalie or Matthew’s new house for the first time, some time in the distant future, with several boxes in tow. Each one filled to the brim with piles of old toys they probably neither remember nor care about...and the circle of parenting continues.

After going through each box carefully, Natalie will probably ask, “Mom, Dad, where’s Bubby?”

“Bubby? Honey, we threw that out 30 years ago.”

Nah, just kidding, Bubby will always be around (though he’s been usurped by Surprise Bear and is currently out of favor).

Maybe he’s Natalie’s Rosebud.

What’s yours?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

My Truck is Back

Even though I’ve owned a half dozen cars throughout my life, I really think I was a repressed truck guy all along. Since I’ve owned a truck, I don’t know how I ever lived without it. I’ve owned this 2004 F150 since November 2003 because I needed a truck with a backseat to put the car seats for the kids, as my first truck was a single cab and quite useless (I shouldn’t have bought it in the first place as I lost money on the deal, of course). The whole while that I drove my current truck, I hated the wheels and tires, and as I said before, they made it look small and weak. So, half of me was thankful the tires wore out, not that I sabotaged it or anything; it just worked out nicely in my favor.

I just couldn’t wait until I got new ones.

The wait ended yesterday when I went to pick up my truck, shoed with huge tires and fantastic wheels. Just look at the before and after picture at the left of the page and tell me that the truck doesn’t look better with these 35-inch tires… just try and find a reason that it doesn’t look better, just try. It's impossible.

Natalie was thrilled to see it back in the driveway again, and she ran out to look at it when I came home. The tires are as tall as she is, and she made faces in the shiny wheels.

It drives like a freight train, and I get to see the world from a higher vantage point, which just adds to the coolness factor! Despite the many large trucks in my town, I actually got looks as I drove down the road, partly because of the wheels, but mostly because the new design of the F150 looks great lifted. The larger wheels makes the engine work a little harder from a standing stop, and I have to relearn all of dimensions of the truck, which makes parking a little difficult again; Since my perspective is slightly off by the height it seems that I’m closer to things than I actually am, so I'm not able to swing the truck into a compact space with confidence as I once was.

What I don’t like is that, since the truck is taller it has a higher center of gravity making for a slight roll during turns (the technical term is "yaw"). It isn’t that bad, but it forces me take the corners a little slower (at least until I get used to it), which is probably a good thing in the long run. Also, I’m not used to getting in and out of it yet, and the first I’m I got out, I almost fell on my face because I wasn’t thinking about the extra foot of freefall. As well, I literally have to climb up into it, which makes me think I’m actually operating it like heavy equipment rather than merely taking it for a drive.

However, it looks great, doesn’t it?

Oh yeah, and the brakes work good too.

The Suicide Pact

I suppose it started late one night, after everyone was fast asleep in their beds, when the appliances entered into a secret pact to end their lives at a determined time. They got together one night when the house was dark and quiet and they knew no one else was around. The refrigerator turned on its ice dispenser light and the oven cracked its door so a soft yellow glow filled the kitchen. I don’t know which one of them first came up with the idea. Maybe it was the fridge, he’s new to the group, but my suspicions lie with the microwave, the oldest and probably most wise. I picture him saying, “Gentleman and lady [the dishwasher is a woman], I think there comes a time in every appliance’s life that they go off into the world to seek a new fortune.” They huddled around to listen to the microwave and decide their fate. “We have served our duty well, but there is more for us than this kitchen and this house. We must find out what the Fates have in store for us and follow in the footsteps of the dryer.”

Perhaps depression was the catalyst, maybe I didn’t talk to them enough (cussing at them probably made it worse), but it was something that started it all. Ultimately, I blame the dryer, whose untimely demise signaled the beginning of the end for the remaining appliances, and the die was cast (or is it dye?). Instead of the microwave, I bet the dryer was the leader (he does have the biggest mouth), and the remaining appliances decided they didn’t want to live in a world without the Roper dryer. Sure, I bought an exact replica of the old Roper, but I’m sure they could tell. It wasn’t the same, and I’ll bet that made it worse for them, thinking they were duped into believing I resurrected their leader, when it was really just a dryer who knew nothing of life in our house.

Then the water heater decided to leak. Sure, I fixed it, but that lasted about a week, as another leak developed from another divot at the top of the water heater. Since I ran out of Por-15, I used plumber’s putty and a healthy dose of rust-inhibiting primer paint over the leak. I know, Mickey Mouse, but it beats replacing it at least for another couple of weeks until it starts to look like a water feature in the park.

Last week, if you remember my post, I noticed that the refrigerator was making this hideous noise every time the compressor kicked on, a noise akin to the death-throws of a major appliance. However, for some odd reason, I haven’t heard it again (he chickened out of the pact I’m guessing), but I’m a little leery of its loyalty to the kitchen and its job. One day, I expect to find a puddle of water under it and my milk lukewarm.

At the same time, the washing machine is making a scary scythe-on-metal grinding noise during the spin cycle, and it’s still doing it. The good news is that it isn’t getting worse, but I think its days are numbered. I think it knows it too.

Yesterday, I thought it a good idea to bake a cake for no reason what so ever (I’m funny like that), and the oven took an hour to heat up to a miserly 350-degrees. Now, I know my way around an oven, as I am an award-winning baker (granted, it’s the County Fair, but the ribbons are still blue), so an hour to warm up is beyond the realms of convenient. It’s on its way out and I don’t think there’s a lot I can do to stop it. If I could fill a book with what I know about a water heater, I can’t write a paragraph about the oven.

On top of which, I don’t trust the dishwasher; it’s a little wishy-washy, as sometimes the dishes are sparkly and sometimes they’re a little crusty and have to go another round. It’s either getting lazy or it has decided to end it all.

So, there’s something amiss here in the kitchen, and every time I walk in there, it’s as if I just interrupted a secret conversation among conspirators. It’s oddly quiet, almost spooky, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I came downstairs one dark and stormy night—much like tonight—to find the toaster strung up by its cord in the middle of the room with a note pined to the crumb catcher that reads: “Good bye cruel world. I burned your bagels for the last time.”

I think I see some new appliances in my future… might as well get them all at the same time while I’m at it: water heater, dishwasher, microwave, stove and washing machine. If only I hadn’t spent three grand on a set of wheels and tires. Hmmmm, it isn’t irony, I know, but perhaps an unfortunate coincidence that all of this is happening. At least, when I go and pick up the replacements in my truck, I'll look good doing it.

In local news, it was a record hot spell today, at least it should be a record, as it was hotter today than any day I can remember in recent history (the record high for this region in July was 110 degrees in 1977). I have three thermometers that I refer to throughout the day: The one outside on the patio post peaked out at 115 degrees this afternoon, while the one in my truck measured 113, and the one in the bathroom (that reads a sensor in the backyard) topped out at 110 degrees. The one in the bathroom records the highest and lowest temperatures, and the recent high was 119 and the low was 80, but that’s the result of direct sunlight. So, whichever you subscribe to, it still equates tremendous heat, oppressive heat, like a burning thumb pushing you into the ground.

I wanted to crack an egg on the blacktop in the street, but when I thought to do it, humidity reached 100 percent and it started to rain. That was soon followed by thunder and lightning that had Natalie running for cover. I suppose it is my fault that she’s afraid of it, as I used the the scary thunder as an excuse to get her to come in the house this evening, saying it would get her if she didn’t come inside for dinner. Now, to her, thunder is this personified boogieman haunting the backyard just outside the windows waiting to get in. There goes my Father of the Year award for sure now.

Matthew is sick with a horrendous cough and sounds like a smoker in an old folks' home. I’m sure it is daycare related, but I can’t prove it. He’s been miserable that last couple of days, and it is worst for him right when he wakes up or after a bottle of milk.

The last few days have been a zoo around here, so much so, that my new name is the zookeeper, like some kind of weird comic book superhero who just runs around making sure nobody lops off a finger, fills a diaper to capacity or runs out of juice and animal crackers. I’m not very good at it truth be told: In a matter of 10 minutes, Kara cut her finger with a potato peeler, Elsa threw up on the kitchen floor and Natalie had an accident on the way to the bathroom. The delightful part for her is that she pointed out to me with glee that her pee was shaped like a fish (there’s a poem in there somewhere…glee, me, pee, she). I’m not sure what the deal is with her eliminations and their association with shapes, but it really was shaped like a fish, a big wet goldfish on the bathroom floor much like the Jesus fishes on the backs of people’s cars. She was embarrassed by the accident, but proud of the artwork.

I’m just glad that I’m pulling up the carpet in a couple of weeks. More on that later.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

One Fine Afternoon at a Small Café...

At a café down a road very far from town,
On a nice sunny day when there’s no one around
Santa Claus sat on his stool and thought it funny
To share a cappuccino with the Easter Bunny.

They usually meet up every year at this time.
It was perfect, very nice, like a nursery rhyme.
There were no holidays or timelines or schedules to keep
No worries about eggs to hide and no children asleep

Just two icons living outside their fairyland world
Complaining about their jobs is where this story unfurled:

”You know, my friend,” Santa began to say,
“Some claim the reindeer can’t even pull the sleigh.
Something about physics and the passage of time.
I can travel the speed of light and stop on a dime.
The job is not easy, though I make it look so,
With the number on the list oh how it does grow.”

“How about me?” interrupted the hare.
“I get no respect, no praise, it just isn’t fair.
All year I color eggs until my paws turn blue.
I visit every house, every child, every town like you.”

“I have to cart a sleigh all packed up with gifts.
I don’t get to do it in phases or shifts.
It’s all in one shot, and it happens at night
Ninety million homes all visited before light.”

“You give one present to each child, how hard could it be?
I have to hide eggs, not one or two but nearer twenty-three.
Where are my fans, my letters and cookies on a plate?
I’d kill for some reindeer and a sleight for the weight.”

Santa furrowed his brow as he sipped his hot drink.
“I wish I had your magic and that basket, I think.
I have to squeeze down a chimney increasingly small,
And sometimes there’s even no chimney at all.
I duck in a vent, a key hole or what else might arise
And do you know what that does to a guy my size?

“Look,” said the bunny, “I’m only covered in fur,
I can’t fly, I don’t run and I lack a chauffeur.
No elves paint my eggs and there’s no Mrs. Claus up north
I’m all by myself, you see, all alone and so forth.
What we should do is come together and handle this matter,
Form a company, get it done and put an end to this chatter.”

“I understand,” Santa interjected with a gleeful chuckle.
He brushed some crumbs from his suit as he straightened his belt buckle.
“We should join forces, you and me, and do this up right.
We’ll hire scores of bunnies each with reindeer to help take flight.”

“I’ll give you baskets and baskets by the dozen,
Each filled with magic brewed up by my cousin.
You loan me some elves to color my eggs quickly
Together we’ll blanket the world and do it quite thickly.”

“If my suit were not red, but pastels, pinks and blues,
I do nothing on Easter but take a long snooze.
My sleigh could carry you on your Easter journey,
I’ll check with my contract and call my attorney.
If he gives me the green light, then away we will fly,
Imagine dropping Easter eggs from high in the sky!”

The excitement reached an end and silence came on.
They both knew the only conclusion they’ve drawn:
Christmas and Easter were just too separate of days.
If each became one, it would be merely a phase.

“I give up my friend, you Easter Bunny of Spring,
No amount of happiness this scheme would bring.”
“I agree,” said the rabbit with an all-knowing wink.
“We should stay in charge of our own days, I think.”

With a sigh and a smile, Santa paid the check this year.
The Easter Bunny wrinkled his nose and switched an ear.
“I’ll see you soon, Santa, for sure, next July.
Good luck with Christmas and I wish you good bye.”

Jolly Santa smiled as he rose up from his chair.
“Look at us, you and I, aren’t we quite the pair?
We find every way to get out of our life’s work,
When we know that pure joy is the largest perk.”

With a shake and a wave they went their own way,
Each one home to prepare for his own special day.
But every year at this quiet café both strive to attend,
As each one enjoys the annual chat with his friend.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Read the Fine Print

The difference between a wise man and a fool is that the wise man learns from other people’s mistakes while the fool learns from his own. So, here’s some advice from a fool: Always read the fine print.

Actually, I enjoy reading the fine print, all the little “catches” that negate whatever good deal you’ll think you got in the large-print version of the contract, coupon or agreement you are about to sign. Phone companies have them, car dealerships are notorious for them and you can certainly find them in magazine and newspaper ads. They say things like “not redeemable with any other offer,” “some restrictions apply,” and “on approved credit only.” My favorite fine print gimmick is “results not typical,” which are usually found in association with weight-loss commercials, and since it’s summer, there’s oodles of them on TV these days. However, people tend to listen to what they want to hear, and if “results not typical” doesn’t tell them that they’ll still be fat a year from now, then I think they’re beyond help.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an ad in the PennySaver for a car auction that had a $500.00 off coupon when you successfully bid on a car. I bought a car at an auction once (Kara’s 1986 Audi Coupe, a great car!) so that’s a pretty good savings on the price of an auctioned car. But, alas, the fine print: At the bottom in a half-point type it says: “Must be accompanied by four family/friends to validate one coupon with purchase of $5500 for live auction only. Any lower bid than $5500 will receive a $50 discount.” Get that. One of the stipulations is that you have to have four other people with you to save that money, and isn’t that the stupidest coupon ever?

Sometimes, it is the fine print that you don’t read that could benefit you. Case in point, today I got a raise from one of my long-term clients; let’s be clear: Today’s the day I found out about it. They renewed my contract for the rest of 2006 on July 7th, and sent it out for me to sign and return the following work day, the 10th. Well, on the 11th, I remembered about it, printed it out in a rush, flipped to the last page, dashed off my John Hancock and stuffed it into an overnight envelope bound for New York faster than you can say, “Read the fine print, you moron.”

From then until now, I didn’t even know I was making more money each day because I never bothered to even read the contract. I was told that they were renewing it and no mention of a raise even came about, so I just figured I’d do my work for the same pay; I don’t have a problem with that, as it is good money and I don’t have to work that hard that often (but when I do, oh boy, do I), but if I can do it for a few dollars more a day, I’m not going to complain. The reason I never looked at the contract was because it was exactly the same as the one I signed a year ago… apparently, the only thing that changed were the six numbers of my biweekly income, from $x,xxx.xx to $y,yyy.yy. Who would notice that?

I guess I should have. So you can be wise men and women, learn from a fool: The contract you may be reading might be your own, so read it carefully.

Next time I might not be so lucky.

A Day at the Auction

It is days like today that prove my naiveté when it comes to matters of finance and big business is chronic, as I have never been a big star in either fields for much of my life, neither having much money to risk nor knowing where to risk has always been a big obstacle. One thing is true—fatally true—however, is that I have always pinned some dream or another to the high hopes of an improbable set of circumstances, some mostly perceived in my head at the way things should work and most by just not having any idea of how really things work at all.

A great example is the stock market. If you want your company’s profits to come to a screeching halt or if you’re interested in tearing down your entire business from the NYSE on down, convince me to invest in your stock. I have never won at the stock market, and I don’t suppose I ever will. WebVan, Kingdom Ventures, AOL, Primedia, they all tanked merely months after I bought in, and I lost money every time. If someone would tell me of a hot lead (like Kingdom Ventures which I bought for 0.35 cents a share and it dropped to 0.03 six months later), I would give it a try. I bought stock in the company I worked for at $7.00 a share, and it dropped to $1.50 soon after, and let’s not talk about WebVan… they went out of business with my grand carted off in someone’s pocket.

Many years ago, back before the Internet and the multitudes of scams perpetrated therein, I was a big fan of the get-rich-quick schemes. I subscribed to several of them over course of my youth… each one failed the moment it arrived. I bought in on a pyramid scheme once; when it was explained to me, it made perfect sense, until I found out that the only person to actually make any money was the guy at the top, so I pulled out with all of my money intact. I bought one of those “buy real estate” courses you see on late-night TV, as I always figured I was just a shade smarter than the dumbest guy they interview on one of those things, so how could I fail. “No money down,” was their hook, and the only person getting rich is the guy selling them.

There were others, and one thing I did learn from that period in my life is that I was then part of the lowest denominator in society: someone with a little bit of money who didn’t know what he was doing with it. I was, in short, a fool and his money. We parted ways on several occasions, but much like a dog that gets kicked when he’s called, you soon learn to not run to the back door when you hear your name.

Needless to say, all of these money pits and my shortcomings as an investor and calculated risk taker have taken their toll on my confidence, and more importantly, added to the cynicism I currently have toward “deals too good to be true.” Face it folks, they probably are. So, when something comes along these days, my investing skin is so thick that I rarely flinch at it, but I’ve always been a sucker for a piece of land. Maybe it is that because I come from a long line of farmers (before my grandparents opted for the city life) that this third-generation city boy’s genetic makeup is calling out to him, but I have always wanted to own property somewhere, anywhere, as long as I can go there, stand in the middle of the wastelands of nothingness for miles around and say that the dirt that I am standing on is mine and I can do what I want with it.

Several years ago, I started to get these announcements from a company promoting a land auction (Click here for a link to their site), and there would be one ever six months or so in our area. It was a live auction where they would release parcels of land around the state and surrounding states, and I had always wanted to go and get my hands on some cheap land. Here is an example of the land they had on the block:

HINKLEY/BARSTOW AREA (SAN BERNARDINO CO., CA) 10 acres. Big parcel located west of Black Canyon Road and just north of the community of Hinkley. There has been renewed interest in this area lately, so take some time to determine for yourself the potential of this parcel. This property may lack road access.

The opening bid on this particular property was $100. That’s it, and most were just like it, pieces between five and 40 acres all starting around $2000. I can afford that! I thought. Let’s go to the auction and buy a piece of the American Dream, and who better to co-conspire with me but my brother Jason, who is even more interested than I am in making it rich without doing any real work.

Bright and early this morning, I am at his house for the big trek into downtown LA at the convention center where it was being held, and once in the car, Jason develops a sudden hankering for a cup of coffee, Starbucks coffee, two miles in the opposite direction of where we’re going. Once we get there, guess who forgot his wallet at his house and who had to pay for the coffee (and doughnuts on top of that too)? That’s right, so we had to drive two miles back to Jason’s house and get his wallet, and then finally we were off. When there’s no traffic and it is the weekend, I’m always surprised how quickly we can get into the city, as it was only a 25-minute drive. We were nearly the first one’s there, but since I didn’t bring any money, this was merely an exploratory trip for the both of us, as we wanted to check out how much the properties were going for… and, as it turns out, an auction is quite an exciting place to hang out on a Sunday morning. If you squint your eyes just right, it’s a lot like church: There’s a guy in a black suit on the pulpit, rattling off a string of diatribes in another language almost, while a half-dozen bid assistants are in the congregation to rile up the crowd, put on the show and help sell a few souls.

We sat down in the front of the second section, and that proved to be the best seat in the house, thanks to a guy named Marty. He was one of the bid assistants who helped spot bidders and assist with information. There were others, Victor, Kevin and Rudy, but Marty was the best. He looked a lot like Taylor Hicks (the last winning American Idol if you’ve been under a rock these past few weeks), only older, and didn’t stop moving from the time the auctioneer started his rabble to the moment the gavel struck. He ran up and down the aisle, pumped his arms in reaction to a person’s bid, shouted what sounded like Marine cadences as the bids progresses and a cheerleader-like kick as if he was revving up a tractor that hadn’t run in years. Only one other guy got into it, Victor, who started to shout disparagements at the opposing bidders who outbid the guy he was taking care of. Kevin was just an idiot. He just stood there, a big rotund mass of a guy, mouth breather with a slack jaw, and he flashed the bid amount with his fingers while he muttered them, only they’d be backwards, right for him, but backwards for us. Twenty-five thousand (two with his left hand and five with his right) would be fifty-two thousand for us, so if you paid attention to him, you were lost. Usually about that time, Marty would do a galloping side-step down the aisle in front of him, waving his arms like he’s directing a plane to land.

The auctioneer was one of the traditional ones, who seemed to make up words in the middle of his call, and possessed the ability to only need a breath of air every twenty minutes or so but only say one word:

“Twentyfivesixtwentyfivesixwhowillgivemeseven? Twentyfivesixsevenanyeight? Newhorseintherunningyou’reout twentyeighttwentyeighttwentyeightwhowantstoplaytoday?Who’llgivemeninenineninewe’reattwentyeightfiveanynine?Who’sonthemoneywhereisthemoney?”

It was mesmerizing, like having someone read to you a Dr. Seuss book at a high rate of speed: “And that makes a story that's really not bad! But it still could be better. Suppose that I add. A Chinese man who eats with sticks. A big Magician doing tricks. A ten-foot beard that needs a comb. No time for more, I'm almost home. I swung 'round the corner and dashed through the gate, I ran up the steps and I felt simply great! And that is a story that no one can beat, when I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street!”

There were times where I would just check out, stop thinking and let his voice lull me into a quiet stupor, until I woke up and realized I was at an auction surrounded by thousands of people. Other times the excitement and fury of the bidding wars made my face itch. For some reason, I resisted movement that required me to reach any of my appendages above shoulder level for fear that I would inadvertently bid on something. I know, sounds stupid, but how many times have we seen the bumbling oaf buy some expensive vase at an auction because he had an itchy nose? Well, I didn’t want to be that guy.

On the contrary, Jason wanted to be that guy. Neither of us had any money, remember, and neither of us had the wherewithal to make such a purchase. After parking, I had three bucks, and three bucks wasn’t going to buy me a jar of dirt; however, Jason, on the other hand, wanted a piece of the action (as usual), so on the fourth lot, a five-acre parcel in the Wild Billy Lake area of Klamath, Oregon, he raises his number, instantly attracting the attention of two ringman who jump up ecstatically at the “new horse” in the race.

In hindsight, it wasn’t perhaps the wisest thing to do, only because the bidding was fierce, make no mistake, on every other property on the 150-parcel list… every other property with the exception this particular one. Wild Billy Lake, for some reason, must be a toxic waste dump because only four people dared to bid on it before it sold at $9000, the second lowest winning price of the day. Jason was the second bidder at $5000, and only two more people followed, as opposed to dozens of bids on most all of the other properties. It was a heart racing few moments where we stood a strong chance of being thrown out on our deadbeat ears with or without my three dollars and jar of dirt. What was worse, for me, at least, was the attention of the two goundsmen, hovering over us as if they get a cut of the take. Marty was crouched down like he was judging a Twister competition and Rudy had his arms wide open, anxiously awaiting our return into the fray….or he wanted a hug, I wasn’t too sure. Either way, my heart didn't start beating again until the gavel fell.

That was the excitement for the day, a brief shot at owning a piece of land, or having it forced down our throats by the angry financeers on the other side of the room when they realized that we were looky-loos out to win the hourly drawing (which we didn't). Oh, so why didn’t I do it, why didn't I take a chance on my dream of owning property? Well, before I heard the very first lot, I figured that if the starting bid is merely $500, how high could it go, $1000, $2500? Who knows, but it couldn't be that high, right? Naïve as you might think I am about auctions, I thought it would end well and that next time we’d go, we'd bring some money and actually buy something, but the one property I was interested in, a 10-acre tract of land about 50 miles from my house that started at $500 went for $43,000, a little out of my ballpark right now. Hell, we’re not even in the same game.

So we left, a little smarter, a little disenchanted and a little more wary of the ways of the real estate world. Jason bought me lunch at Red Robin (hey, I drove, and at these gas prices!). When I got home everyone was asleep so, when in Rome…

Now, of course, I’m wide awake. Maybe I’ll do some work… nah, maybe tomorrow.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Getting the Wheel Rolling

It’s always nice to start the day with a flat tire. It’s my own fault. I place too much loyalty on my truck, too much benefit of the doubt that it will always work properly because it always has and I don’t give it the due maintenance it deserves. The tire in question (left rear if it matters) had been low for some time, at it was just a case of supreme laziness that I didn’t get it fixed any sooner, but that isn’t to say that I didn’t try.

I have a small portable air tank in the garage that I use to inflate all of the various tires (jogging stroller, Natalie’s wagon, etc.), and it is always low itself because I can never get the air compressor at the gas station to fill it to capacity. Needless to say, it only had about 20 psi of air in it when I went to fill the 40 psi tire in error on my truck. I ended up sucking more air out until I was hovering near 25 psi.

After that, I stopped at the gas station and hooked up the air nozzle, which just exhaled onto the stem, like a gasping breath into the tire. More air was sucked out. Great. It would be another couple of days until I could find the time to get it taken care of, but the story started two years ago.

When, for the lack of attention to detail or forgetting all the steps of a procedure, I drove my truck with the e-brake fully engaged for about two miles on the way home from the AAA office. On top of which, I was towing one of the Volkswagens, so I didn’t really perceive the extra weight when I stepped on the gas. I noticed it was sluggish, but I just assumed it was the VW attached to the back that was causing my truck to pull hard. When I got home, smoke was coming from the rear wheel wells, and I thought I was sunk for sure.

After that, every time I stepped on the brakes, the front end would shimmy like it was completely out of alignment, and that shivering would transfer itself all the way up into the steering column and into my brain, causing untold amounts of exasperation. I took it into the dealership and they said it was unfixable, but they did their best to remedy it… somewhat of a band aid on an amputation, I guess. I left the dealership with them telling me that the problem would come back and haunt me in the next 10 thousand miles. It was sooner than that, the vibration returned. And wouldn’t you know it that I had just rolled over the 30,000-mile mark, that magic number that washes the hands of the Ford Motor Company of any responsibility to fix my problems. As a result, I had relegated myself to live with it, and I did for almost two years; every time I stepped on the brakes, I would fume a little, resenting the $30,000 purchase, my lack of attention to the e-brake when I would tow (which I now religiously release and habitually check, even when I’m driving), but most of all, I fumed at the dealership for not being able to fix an aspect of a truck they built. I would like to think that I could carry my truck into the service bay in a series of boxes and they could deliver me an assembled truck; I mean, that’s what they do, right?

Since, I barely wash my truck and I hardly ever give it much consideration, I never noticed that the front tires have completely worn themselves down to the base of the tread because of the vibration. Of course, you say, that makes sense that they would. It’s only rubber. I know, I know. There’s approximately an eighth of an inch left of tread on the front tires, and very little left of my patience. Since I’m a doomsayer, both tires will simultaneously explode, sheering the rubber from the rims, the next time I go on the freeway. However, it is like Wiley E. Coyote in that he won’t fall until he looks down, and my tires wouldn’t blow out if I didn’t know they were balding. Since now I know about them, I’m waiting to hear the popping sound at about 80-miles-an-hour.

Then the rear tire went flat, so I dragged it into my local tire place to get it fixed. It was a screw that I probably ran over a couple of weeks ago and the head finally wore off enough to let some air squeak out. While I was there, they recommended that I get a new set of tires for the front.

Great. Like I want to buy a new set of tires… but wait, maybe I do! (No, I really don’t) I’ve always wanted to do a few things to the truck, profile wise, sure, as I was disappointed from the beginning that the tires looked so small compared to the rest of the truck. And frankly, I avoided parking next to bigger trucks… call it truck envy, if you want, but they made my truck look small, so I’d find a nice Kia Rio to lord over. I have 16-inch wheels with 30-inch tires that hardly do the job of filling up the wheel well. So, why not new tires?

My last freelance gig, which rather fell out of the sky and hence I consider it windfall capital, could be used to finance a new tire/wheel/suspension lift package that will butch up the truck a bit. (I know, pay for a new water heater, no, but buy tires and wheels for the truck, a no-brainer, right?) It’s something I’ve always wanted.

While the tire was being patched, I spoke to the owner of the shop about a new set of wheels in addition to my new tires. He passed a couple of catalogs my way and I perused them, looking for just the right kind of wheel, something with a little pizzazz but nothing that would make it look like a sport truck. I wanted tough but flashy (the one I like is the Eagle 137 pictured here, traditional truck wheel with a little bit of flair).

And it snowballed from there, as do most things I endeavor to accomplish. One thing leads to another and I don’t leave the place without spending $3000 on upgrades. If I was going to get new wheels, I might as well get big tires, and if I was going to get big tires, I might as well get the truck lifted slightly and if I was going to get the truck lifted slightly, I might as well get bigger tires, and if I was going to get bigger tires, I might as well get wider wheels, and if I was going to get wider wheels…well, you see where I’m going with this. There comes a certain point that you should just say “stop.”

So, I’m going with a mild six-inch lift, 35-inch-tall tires (with a slight mud-profile, something very similar to the Toyo pictured here) and 17-inch wheel (10 inches wide), and I checked around at various places to see if it is a good deal or not. I’m paying a little less for the wheels and a little more for the tires and just right for the lift, so I feel I’m getting a good deal… plus, it feels good to buy something with windfall capital, like I’m getting it for free, right? Overall, it should raise the height of the truck by 12 inches or so, which doesn’t sound like much, but it will be enough to give it a nicer stance. On top of which, he’ll fix the brakes and was rather surprised that the dealer couldn’t (because they’re lazy idiots was his summary).

Why am I telling you all of this? I don’t know. Nothing is really that exciting in my life right now, I guess, which is fine because if it were, I wouldn’t have time to tell you about it. However, today was an especially dull day: play, eat, nap, diaper change, eat, nap… mommy comes home. Why didn’t I go somewhere? I don’t know, maybe it was the 114-degree weather my gauge claimed was the outside high temperature today. Even I was willing to turn on the air (but not until after 1pm, of course). On days like this, I understand why people live at the beach.

I’m not even wasting any time today by doing this. This is the highlight, prime time, rush hour.

And all I wanted was the tire fixed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

What’s With the Water Heater?

Let’s just start out by admitting something here: I know nothing about water heaters. I don’t know how they work, why they don’t work when they stop working and what to do about it. Well, maybe I know how they work. Flame on the bottom heats the water in the middle and it goes into the house at the top, and therein lies the problem I was faced a few days ago.

I had decided to do some laundry, as I was nearly down to the bottom of my underwear drawer, and that means I had to spend the day walking around with Indian underwear that constantly creeps up on me. Periodically picking a wedge of cotton out of your fault line every time you take a step isn’t how I like to live. The good news, however, is that the last pair is well ventilated (can you say holey underwear, Batman!) with an elastic band that’s merely a shadow of its former self. And if I ever got pants’d while wearing them, there’s not a whole lot keeping them where they are and the effect would be legendary to whomever did the pantsing. As a side note here (right, like this whole thing isn’t a side note), what is with the sizes printed on underwear? I’ve got a few pairs that are sized “36/38,” and I don’t know what that means. Is it a size 37? Is it designated that way to make the 38 people feel good that their underwear size is a petite 36, or is it to make the 36 people think that’s there’s still a lot of wiggle room left?

Okay, so I’m gathering up whites for a load of laundry to avoid wearing the e-pair of underwear currently stuffed in the corner of my sock drawer. There were a few especially dirty socks by the garage door left over from a rousing jaunt of yard work; my work boots have holes in the bottom of them, so what I step in goes right up onto the sock, hence their sequestering to the garage until a load of whites are rounded up. It’s like a cattle call, I gallop around the house rustling socks, herd them together and drive them to market. I reach down to pick up the stray socks and they're soaking wet. It had been a few days since I discarded them there, and there should be no reason to believe that they could have stayed wet that long.

Then I looked up to the water heater and underneath the behemoth was a slowly growing puddle of water creeping out from some unknown leak (and mushrooms! No kidding). Great. What now? Do I need a new water heater? One would assume so, but even if this one was installed when the house was new, it is only eight years old, not long enough to stop working.

Home Depot Trip Number One: Water heater aisle. There are about six different kinds and sizes ranging from a 20 gallon to a 75… and the prices start at 250 bucks and skyrocket from there. The one I would need was $400. Nobody ever gets excited about buying a new water heater, and what’s more is that they charge almost 50 percent of the cost for installation (and you have to have a permit from the city). What a waste.

If you’re saying that $400 isn’t much to spend for the luxury of hot running water, a little background: I spent most of my 20s with a money’s-no-object attitude, and if I wanted something, I just bought it without much thought about the cost. Now that I’m in my 30s, I realize how much money I wasted over the years on things that don’t matter now (and barely did then) and now I feel that money is very much an object. Furthermore, if I can shimmy out from underneath an unexpected $400 expense on a less-than-glamorous water heater—money I could easily spend elsewhere on something much more rewarding—then I’ll do it, or at least give it a shot. Call me miserly, cheap, frugal, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got higher priorities for my bank accounts than to finance a water heater purchase.

Fearing that the water heater would suddenly explode at any given second, I investigated for the leak with extreme caution; remember, that I know nothing about them, so it unexpectedly bursting at the seams and showering me with scalding water under high-pressure was not completely out of the realms of possibility. There’s warning signs all over the thing alluding to this very idea. I sat there on the garage floor with a flashlight looking for any signs of a leak, a drop of water, a drip of anything falling onto the floor. I sat there a long time and nothing, no so much as a trickle. I turned on the hot water in the downstairs bath tub, thinking that if I lowered the pressure, it would cycle through another tank of water and the source of the leak could be found. Twenty minutes and nothing.

Home Depot Trip Number Two: Water heater aisle. With their floor models naked, I could see what was hiding behind the insulation on mine. Drain valve, pressure release valve, hot water out, cold water in, and a heat vent at the top. No other intended holes. Back home, I climbed a ladder to take a look at the top of my heater. Eureka! Water everywhere, and I found the general location of the leak.

One of the crafty ways they get you to replace your water heater more frequently is that they use an aluminum tank that won’t rust, copper pipes to and from the house that won’t rust, but iron fittings that connect the copper pipes to the tank… that does rust. On top of which, each water pipe is fitted to the tank in this quarter-inch-deep indentation that traps water there long enough to rust away whatever’s nearby. What’s nearby? As you can see in the picture, it’s the iron fittings, of course. It looked like the bottom of an old car in there, and both of the divots (one for cold water and one for hot) were filled to the brim with red, rust-hued water. Apparently, when the water heater pressurized after cycling through a tank of hot water, it would leak, overflow the divots and spill down the back of the tank, underneath the insulation, and onto the floor. Nice.

So, how do you fix such a thing? I don’t know. Another thing I noticed is that the cold water pipe, when the water heater would open up the inlet valve and suck in more water, it would leak at just above the fitting, where the copper tube and the tightening nut meet. Nice.

I mulled over it for a couple of days, called my dad to see if he’s ever fixed a leaky water heater before (he hadn’t), and he convinced me to replace it myself if I had to… and it does seem easy, just three pipes. But no fatherly water heater advice. “I’m interested to know how it turns out,” he said, signifying that I was on my own. Read on, Dad.

I tried to soak up the water with a towel, but as soon as I pulled the towel away, it would immediately fill up again. So, it was definitely leaking, and there wasn’t much to do about it but go to Home Depot again. Today was the day. I would fix it or buy a new one and replace the leaky one, reluctantly.

Home Depot Trip Number Three: Water heater aisle. Since I knew the cold water inlet copper tubing was also leaking, I found a replacement. They had regular copper pipe and fancy braided stainless steal lines in three lengths, 12, 18 and 24 inches. Of course, I had no idea how long the original line was so I bought the 24-inch, and I felt fancy, so the braided line came home with me (along with a flag stanchion, but that’s another story).

Up on the ladder again back in the garage, I turned off the cold water inlet at the wall and cautiously began to unbolt the copper pipe with a crescent wrench. A little water came out, and I expected that, thinking there was some still in the line. No big deal. Another turn with the wrench and a Niagara Falls plume of water jets across the garage, spraying a deluge everywhere, so now I’m wet, everything around me is wet too. It begins to mix with the half-inch layer of dust on top of the tank, making mud. Great.

No matter how hard I twisted the faucet on the wall, water sprayed out. Okay, Plan B, trigger the water pressure release valve and turn off the water main at the side of the house. Turn on the bathtub until the water stops pouring. I’m good. Back up on the tank, the original copper pipe came off nice and easy, but the stupid fancy braided stainless steal line I bought to replace it was too big. I tried to force it to make the 90-degree bend, but it was pinching at the bend and I figured that would do my hot water pressure any favors.

Home Depot Trip Number Four: Garden section. Hey, I needed other things; my life doesn’t revolve around the water heater, but while I was there, I returned the fancy steal line and saved myself a few bucks by getting the bendy copper line, 18 inches this time.

But what about the leak at the base of the iron fitting, where all the rust was found? What can I do about that? How about plumber’s putty? I’ve seen people do great feats of magic with this professional PlayDough, and it was only two bucks, making it well worth a shot. On the way home, the part of my brain that constantly thinks about cars, their acquisition, restoration and enjoyment, came up with a great idea…and I’ll share it with you later.

The replacement copper line fits perfectly, nice and tight. I turned on the water main at the side of the house and then the faucet at the wall. Nothing exploded (or imploded, you never know), no scalding water burst from the leak and nobody had to wear a Phantom of the Opera mask for the rest of his life. All went well, but it was still leaking. There was obviously a rusted-through hole at the base of the cold water fitting, and if I didn’t fix that, I didn’t fix anything.

Initially, I thought of my welder, just lay a bead of weld around the base of the fitting, filling the hole and stopping the leak. I’ve got some skills as a welder, but not that many, and I would probably burn a larger hole in the top of the tank, necessitating replacement of the whole thing. So, that’s out.

Then the revelation came. Por-15, a rust fighter’s best loved tool, and I’m surprised it took me so long to come up with it. Por-15 is a tough paint that forms an impervious coating over any rusted area, allowing no water and air to the metal and no rust on other nearby metals. I use it on the floorboards on all of my cars, anywhere there rust (or there could be rust).

I took some of the plumber’s putty and made a doughnut around the iron fitting and then filled the entire divot with Por-15, creating a thick layer of the sealer that will prevent any leaks once it is completely dry. Genius.

Of course, it is only a matter of time it completely craps out and I’ll have to buy a new one, but not today. Haha!

Did I mention that the washing machine is making a horrible noise during the spin cycle, like a cyclone is tearing through a mobile home park (I know, cyclones happen on water, but I think a cyclone sounds more terrifying than a tornado), and when the motor kicks in on the refrigerator from time to time, it’s beginning to growl like a hedgehog.

When a hedgehog growls, it spits dollar signs, and that always sounds expensive; but the long-awaited point here is that it isn’t going to be expensive today!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Full Moon Over Troubled Waters

It’s late. Again, I’m not that sleepy, but I am just punchy enough to find this topic hilarious; then again, The Three Stooges is high art in my book, and I can find funny at a clown funeral. However, if you’re one not easily amused by toilet humor or Stories from the Septic Tank, as I like to call them, then you might just want to pass on this entry. Not that it’s blatantly disgusting or anything, but... well, you know me, I can write 1500 words about me eating a baked potato.

Natalie’s got a few quirks that I admire. For one, she likes routine and strict regiment. I like that in a person because it makes them dependable. If something is supposed to happen a certain way, then it’d better do it that way forever, and if she grows up thinking that fishing poles are shaped like baseball bats and see-saws look like pogo sticks, then so be it. That’s the way she thinks they’re supposed to be, and who am I to judge? I put on my left shoe first, even if I accidentally pick up my right shoe; I’ll put it back down and reach for the left, every time, every day, my whole adult life.

This is another one of her little quirks that I’m sure she’ll kill me later for making public, but she’s very interested in her own poop.

Now, as easy as it is to use the word “poop” throughout this entry, I really don’t care for it. It’s too graphic as far as I’m concerned, and although “poop” is a pant-load better than the word “poo,” it still reeks of being vulgar and lacks a certain level of sophistication and class. So, when the word does need to be inserted into the story here I’ll try to turn it into something that is slightly more creative and not so crude. Instead of… that word… I’ll include some off-the-wall euphemism to make it not sound so unpleasant and juvenile (and for your edification, I will italicize them so you'll know it when you come across one). For example, instead of saying “poop,” I’ll call it an Alaskan hand warmer, and I may refer to “Number Two” as downloading some software. You get the idea.

So, where was I? Oh yes, she’s fascinated with poop… ah, excuse me, I mean, she is fascinated with polluting the porcelain pond, specifically her own, but not exclusively. She always wants a peek into Matthew’s diapers to see the S.S. Baby Ruth and she finds it quite the adventure to seek out where Elsa built a new home for a dung beetle in the backyard.

I think Natalie speaks for most of us in this manner. As part of polite society, we are all taught tact, decorum, class and demure modesty in regards to discussing the slightest bit of satisfaction for making a deposit at the porcelain bank. Heaven forbid we let on that we all look at it afterwards, but you know you do. Not only is it a morbid curiosity, like opening up a tissue after you blow your nose, but we know that the first sign of serious illness can be found by keeping tabs on your cigar exporting business.

Natalie, on the other hand, isn’t ashamed of it all at. In fact, she is so thrilled whenever she successfully makes a poodle jump through the hoop that she like to tell me about it, even when I’ve been gone all day and I’m kissing her goodnight hours afterwards. She’s proud, and I think she sees reverse engineering a Twinkie as a personal form of creative art that is always readily available, like her own personal Playdough factory.

It’s probably our fault, as parents, but every time she would stock the pond with brown trout, we would exalt upon her such praises like she had just solved an algebraic equation that stumped Euclid. This was mostly due to the encouragement of potty training, as we read in one of our numerous baby books that taking the Browns to the Super Bowl for children can be a daunting challenge. At first she was afraid of the barbarians at the gate, and when the tan man knocked at the back door she would avoid talking about it and instead hide until her diaper was full. The toilet scared her but how can you blame her? It’s loud when you flush it and after updating the captain's log who knows where it goes; I think she must have though that the mud bunnies were sucked into some horrible vortex and if she got anywhere near the toilet, she might fall victim to their fate. On top of which, she has had numerous bouts of constipation throughout her life, and she would sometimes spend an hour forcing the duck to quack with little to show for it. Now that her digestive system has improved I think we are just happy that she is able to shovel a load of coal down the chute.

The other day, as she is on her “little potty” negotiating the release of the chocolate hostages, I was standing there helping her with her pants (to avoid random nudity that runs rampant throughout this house) and to provide her with an appropriate length of toilet paper (otherwise the entire roll will mysteriously unwind itself on the bathroom floor). I thought the trip to the reading room was merely to bottle some apple cider, but she suddenly announced: “Daddy, I’m pooping.” (Sorry, that’s the word she uses).

Nowhere yet have I learned a good response to her exclamation about cleaning out the tuba, so I usually say something along the lines of, “Good for you!” or “Hooray!”

However, to her, coronating Pope Gluteus Maximus is a great accomplishment that demands celebration… and investigation, so after she introduces the toilet to the bald man with the cigar she needs to check it out. More precisely, she needs a second opinion, so she invites me to peer into her little plastic potty and see the log jam on skid row.

“Wow,” she breathed in a semi-hushed, reverent tone one would use gazing at the Mona Lisa or standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon not the rim of the oval office.

“Good job,” I said, handing her some toilet paper to finish the job.

“Yeah,” Natalie answered, still staring into the bowl like she was helping the groundhog find his shadow. “It looks like the moon.” she said nonchalantly while pointing into the basin. She turned to look up at me and her eyes grew wide at the sudden revelation. “Daddy! I pooped the moon.”

I gave it a second look. Damned if she didn’t, and I couldn’t do anything but agree. “Good for you. It does look like a crescent moon.”

“Yeah, and it’s waxing.”

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