Friday, July 31, 2009

The Would-Be Landlord

We were strongly cautioned against renting to a friend. People in the know told us very firmly that if we rented to one of our friends, we would end up regretting it. One ill-time clogged toilet, a broken window, a damaged appliance, any of those things could happen and would end up derailing our friendship, we were assured by other friends who owned rental properties. We listened, disappointed, but grateful for the advice from our friends who were seasoned landlords.

We talked to our friend, and she agreed, although she seemed saddened. She ended up renting a different house next to a man she refers to as The Sobriety Challenged. We soldiered on trying to find a tenant for our home. There are no shortage of people trying to rent the place, but those very same friends with all the landlord experience forgot to fill us in on another aspect of rental properties.

This is the conversation I had recently when my phone rang for what seemed the one thousandth time:

"Hello, I'm calling about your house for rent. Can you tell me how big it is?"

I proceeded to have a friendly chat about square footage, security deposits, number of bedrooms and bathrooms.

"That sounds great! Could I set up a walk through?" She could, I assured her. "By the way, do you take pets?"

"We do, small dogs and cats are fine."

"Great, that's great. I've got a Jack Russel Terrier." Aw, isn't that nice? "Oh, and do you take felons?"

I responded thusly, "Wwwwhhhhaa....?"

"Felons? People with felony convictions?"

"I hadn't really given that any thought..." And I was on the verge of losing the power of speech when I realized the nice terrier owner was using a plural, not a singular. "I'm sorry, more than one?"

"Yeah, it's kind of a long story..."

Jeez, I'll bet. "You know, we do plan on running background checks."

"Oh. Credit reports, too?" She sounded dismayed. "We haven't had the best luck."

Oh, to put it mildly, it sounded as if that was the case. I exited that conversation as quickly as possible thinking it might have been a joke, certain it had to be a fluke. It wasn't.

Between the two of us my husband and I have fielded a half a dozen requests to rent to people with a variety of criminal records, and not some youthful car boosting sort of stuff, either. One woman probably did permanent damage to my psyche when she asked, half way through inquiring about the house if I would mind if she told me something. Even though I was leery I gave tacit agreement, which I very quickly withdrew when the words "registered offender" left the woman's mouth.

Our rental house is nice, we lived in it for ten years, in a quiet working class neighborhood. It's got the original 1912 woodwork and stained glass, it's hardly in some Skid row area. Now, we have had perfectly normal, nice people call. It hasn't just been a parade of terror, thank goodness.

But here, if you are ever a prospective landlord let me tell you what the people so anxious to make sure I didn't make the grave mistake of renting to my friend, the cellist, didn't bother to tell me:

If you include a number with your rental offering, don't answer the phone when people call. I'm serious. If it is a legitimate inquiry the individual will leave a message with a call back number. This will help you avoid calls that are just too weird to even detail. When people ask for information on the rent, give it to them, but add this key phrase: "No multiple leases, and all tenants will have to pass a credit and background check." Better yet? Include that wording in whatever ad you run. Even if you're paying by the word, it will be worth it.

Sounds cold doesn't it? It probably is, but it will save miles of wear on your sanity.

By the way, my Liberal conscience was suffering slightly at the thought that I would reject people out of hand for mistakes in their past. Doesn't everyone deserve a chance to right their previous wrongs? I do believe that, but here's the thing we very quickly discovered, there's a reason that prospective tenants will bring that up in an initial conversation: they've done something pretty darned scary. Really. Just trust me on this. Chances are good they are bringing that up because it is required by law that the police know where they are. Eek.

I did eventually take to task one of the friends who warned me against renting to wild players of string instruments.

"So, you could have mentioned the entire thing with Felons!"

"Oh no. I thought you'd know! I thought everybody knew that."

Well, I do now.

The other thing is that if you are trying to rent a house, you will also receive a lot of calls from people hoping to score a deal by buying the place at a substantially reduced price. If you don't include the phrasing about background checks in your previous conversations, you'll be highly tempted to take them up on it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This, that, and Bessy.

Meet Bessy, who may or may not be a steer, and therefore inappropriately named. My husband and son weren't able to ascertain a gender, they were just busy trying to keep Bessy from turning herself (?) into steak right before their eyes.

This picture was taken up at Taylor Reservoir in the Colorado high country. As was the (rather giant, hopefully I'll be able to figure out how to downsize it) header picture. Last week my husband and son went fishing for four days up at Taylor, and arrived home, happy, exhausted, indescribably dirty and triumphant. They were really grateful to be able to grab hot showers, and I was oddly proud that they were able to. More on that in a moment.

Bessy, the hapless bovine, broke into the campgrounds by hopping a nearby fence, and then went on walkabout. Bessy was absolutely fascinated by the disused campfires, and went rooting around in the ashes, happy as could be. When she arrived at my husband and son's fire, she stood and studied the flames leaping out of the fire-pit in use and then quite simply decided to go for it. Much yelling and arm waving ensued as my husband and son tried to keep Bessy from a spot of self-immolation she seemed to find fitting.

My husband and son concluded that they did not miss their calling as cowhands. Bessy proved to have a self-destructive streak, and they flapped at her desperately. After some singeing she was persuaded to go on her way.

Meanwhile back at the homestead the water heater mysteriously stopped working, and so did the brand new Electrolux clothes washing machine. By now I am an old hand at dealing with puzzling breakdowns, and both were handled quickly. The pilot light had put itself out for no apparent reason, but was eventually persuaded that yes, it could actually work. The washer turned out to have an improperly connected wire that seemed to be a factory oversight. It was jiggled loose, but now it is firmly secured. It was under warranty, so that was just a little bit of inconvenience and nothing more.

I had to call in service people for both, although I gave lighting the pilot light on the water heater ye olde college try. Luckily it wasn't any problem with my technique, it was that the former owners never met a bolt they failed to strip. I was dealing with a shut off/turn on valve that had given up the ghost entirely and required some heavy-duty persuasion with a wrench, and a blow torch, alarmingly enough.

The plumbers decided I was a good egg, and basically decided to fore go charging me for the emergency lighting ceremony. This probably has to do with the fact that I kept making them laugh, and also that eventually the part will need to be replaced. I promised to throw the business their way when the wrench and propane trick stops working.

Not often, but sometimes small misfortunes can come in such a wave that they cease to be distressing, and move swiftly into the funny category. When I turned on the hot water and was instead greeted by a chilly stream, I honestly did laugh. What karmic god of house appliance failure had I ticked off? I'm not sure, but sometimes it actually feels good to simply field a problem, find the solution and move on to the next. It's like the universe testing your capabilities.

It probably didn't hurt that in the last two weeks I've made time to get back to my work out regime, and therefore am well stocked with my longtime friend, the endorphin. The happy pills of the of the health maintenance system.

Instead of feeling put upon, I really did feel like the conquering hero of the piece. Plus, when my husband and son got home they were full of stories, including the tale of Bessy.

No matter what is going on in life, I try to take comfort in this: I likely have the wherewithal to actually solve a lot of the minor difficulties in life, and that's a serious boon. Don't get me wrong, there are serious problems in life, and sometimes upsetting circumstances. It's just most aren't. At least for me, at the present time, may that continue.

Sometimes difficulties are just a way to prove to yourself that you can figure out how to take care of things on your own. Like with the two running toilets that my husband hadn't had a chance to tackle (he was in favor of calling in a plumber), while my family was off fishing, I did a rather inelegant thing. I grabbed a set of screw drivers, and hit the two bathrooms with the running toilets. I took the lid off, studied the tower mechanism, flushed several times and watched the proceedings in the tank. Then I fixed the bleeding things. A couple of turns of a screw, one to tighten for one commode, the other to loosen, and that was that.

I've learned how to light the hot water heater with a torch (I do have a propane torch) and what wrench to use to do so, so if (when?) it happens again, I'll know how to handle that.

Fwup, my pigeon friend has moved on. I know! I realized that I was enjoying some decided peace and quiet in my office, the next day I noted it again. Fwup has left the building.

Basically, just saying I'm grateful to feel capable, even when things go wrong.

I'm also grateful not to be Bessy. Most things are fixable when you have sense and reason. Or in the case of Fwup, patience enough to wait it out.

I'm sure I'm tempting something in the universe as I type, and that eventually you'll hear from me, perched atop the smoldering pile of rubble that was once my home but for right now? Life is a pretty good deal, even when things go wrong.

Plus, I know not to stick my face into a fire, so I've got that going for me, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Time to take the Plunge

I may have ended up taking a plunger to the pool fountain because of the dishwasher. Or perhaps it was because of the three wildly disparate quotes for the exact same electrical wiring job. It may have been because Home Depot engaged in some creative license when mixing a can of paint for me, or really, I suppose it was a combination of all those things.

I think a law exists in the universe that if you buy a previously owned home, no matter the amount you paid for it, you will doubtless inherit things just on the verge of breaking. Three constantly running toilets, a filthy air conditioning condenser, screens that mysteriously drop directly from the window frame for no apparent reason, these are all par for the course.

When the dishwasher showed signs of being on its last legs, my husband and I conferred. We don't like to buy much on credit. When you marry someone in the accountancy end of financing, you really come to understand how taking on interest rates on anything you don't absolutely have to is not the most sensible approach. I peered sadly at the dirty glass, twice run through a heavy-duty cycle.

"Ugh. Well, we should wait until next month to get a new one." I said, eying my husband. He nodded and exhaled. "So we'll just have to get a sponge on a stick for the glasses."

"Yeah," he answered thoughtfully.

"And a drainer." I was nodding as I spoke.

"Okay, I can go do that." He didn't sound happy.

"And then we'll all wash whatever dishes we personally use." I stated flatly. "Since I'm not any body's Scullery Maid, and I don't intend to start now."

"Annnnnnd, I'll just be off to buy a dishwasher," said my husband, vanishing in a cloud of determination born of being against doing dishes by hand.

You'd think that would be simple, right? Oh, you are so wrong! We originally bought a top of the line Electrolux dishwasher from Lowe's. For the price we paid you'd think the darn thing could sing you to sleep, and surreptitiously run the vacuum in the dead of night. At first we were told it would be delivered the next day. Then we were told it would be three weeks because they had to build it first. We canceled the order, and went to Best Buy, ordering a very similar one.

That was two and a half week's ago. The first dishwasher came and it turned out that the warehouse must have played Hulk!Smash with it before tenderly packing it on the truck in swaths of cushioning. One side was spectacularly caved in. The next one must have gone via Kazakhstan because after three days, even Best Buy stopped trying to figure out where it went instead of here. They refunded the delivery charge entirely, gave us an additional sixty dollars off, sent a total of 125 dollars in gift certificates on top of that.

Allegedly my new dishwasher will arrive tomorrow, but as I've recently come to understand what a rare and endangered breed the dishwasher has become? I somehow doubt it.

Then there was the parade of electricians who took turns either lying merrily to my face, or being dangerously incompetent. The crux of the matter was needing to upgrade a 120 exterior line to a 220 exterior line for that blessed hot tub. Some said the existing conduit could be used. Another said it couldn't. One informed me that I needed over a thousand dollars worth of work done to accomplish this, including -- I kid you not -- the use of a jack hammer. We went with the guy who could use the existing conduit, and if my house explodes or catches fire? I'm sure the other two will dance a jig on my grave, but so far so good.

Then there was the hallway, where I wasn't sure how much paint I would need. So I purchased a gallon of Ralph Lauren paint, presented my paint chip to the clerk at Home Depot who hit several buttons on the computerized paint mixing system, and gave me a color that looked one heck of a lot like the one I'd selected.

But when I eventually ran out of paint, went back, bought another gallon and finished the hall something looked off. I called to my husband, and confirmed the sad fact that seven hours of edging and going up and down ladders went right down the proverbial drain. The colors were similar, but they were different.

When we took both paint cans back to Home Depot, the manager ran the codes and discovered that the first paint can contained a color that, "Isn't in our system." They replaced the paint for free, but couldn't explain how that had happened. Or why the system misfired in such a way to create a similar paint color vs. spitting out a gallon of Puce, or what have you. We've since fixed it, while making use of some heavy duty words, if you get my drift.

So when the water fountain attached to the pool started to overflow I glared at it. There's no way to turn it off without turning off the pump for entire pool. There are two PVC pipes in the fountain, and neither appeared to be doing anything other than drowning.

"I'll get the number for the pool repairman." My husband said in a weary tone.

"You do that." I said, marching past with a toilet plunger held aloft, like a spear.

"What are you doing?!?" He yelped.

"Don't worry, it's brand new, it's never been near a toilet in its plunging life." I made my determined way to the pipe.

"Honey! How do you know that will help?!?" My husband looked horrified.

"I don't! But I am sick and tired of being at the mercy of everyone else, and accepting their screw ups. If something is going to go wrong? I'm going to be the one making it go wrong this time." And with grim determination, I fitted the plunger over the PVC pipe, looked to my husband and said, "Well? What do you think?"

"Go for it, honey. The pump system is covered by insurance if you blow it to smithereens."

It worked like a charm.

Now if I could just please have my dishwasher Best Buy? On the upside, it's taken so long that we were able to pay for it in the next month's budget after all.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Good Movie for a Sunday

Yesterday I painted my home office. I sometimes feel as if I've been transfused with Latex paint, and that if I cut myself I'd bleed a variety of hues, I've been painting a great deal.

I think it was the color that made think of a 2001 movie that I particularly liked, although it seems many people haven't seen it. It's a slow movie, very well-written, a thinking movie. The director has a very interesting, and rather subtle eye for color. It is classified as an Indie, which generally just means it's not an action film, since it seems big studios either make action films, or movies that rely less on script, and more on bankablity. I knew I had a copy of it, so I decided to sit down and watch it. Eventually my husband, also familiar with the film, joined me and we both marveled over the lovely, understated performances by some very talented actors.

The movie is Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and if you like thoughtful movies, you'll probably like it. There is never a crescendo in it. The action never comes to a head, and it is a non-linear tale (which can drive some people a bit berserk). Clea Duvall and Alan Arkin are particularly good in it. Parts are sad, but overall the movie is hopeful. The one thing they are all supposed to be discussing is the nature of happiness, at least that's what critical reviews suggest.

I can see that, but mostly it is a quiet study in the nature of faith, that happiness is as much a choice in life as it is anything else, and that maybe, just maybe, we are miracles for other people, when we choose to be.

My husband, joining me in progress, couldn't quite remember the exact plot. Plot spoiler to follow:
(I feel silly guarding against a spoiler on an eight year old film, but some folks abhor spoilers, I don't think this one is key, but better safe, an all that):

At a key point Clea Dvuall's character is saved by the simple act of a stranger smiling at her. My husband turned to me and asked, "Who was it?" since we never see the moment. The film seems to suggest that it was Bowman, known as "Smiley" Bowman in the film. The ending suggests that it might be the least likely character throughout the film. I like to think that's exactly what the ending means. There's also something beautiful in the fact that Beatrice's life is saved because of someone else's choice, and the question of who it was isn't answered because, pretty clearly, the film is trying to suggest it might very well have been you.

I'm a smiling sort of person. Always have been. Years, and years ago, when I was twenty or so I was standing in line at a drugstore, thinking of something pleasant, awaiting my turn at the cash register and I was smiling. A woman in front of me looked at me and said, "You're very pretty." and I thanked her, and smiled more. Then she said acidicly, "You must be very lucky, or very stupid."

It took me a moment to realize she was referring to the fact that I was smiling. I remember that moment because even at twenty, I was absolutely stunned that anyone would go so far out of their way to wipe an entirely harmless smile off of anyone's face. Luckily I am what my mother always referred to as "Bloody-minded", meaning cussed, stubborn, mulish and I replied, "Neither actually." and grinned almost maniacally at her. She turned away quickly, probably thinking I was crazy. I've often wondered, how miserable must her own life have been that the sight of someone smiling set her off so.

I never forgot it. Here's the reason: That was the only time in my life someone criticized me for smiling. When you smile at someone, generally speaking, they will simply smile right back.

Maybe that's why I liked the movie so much. Not everyone in it is likable. Not everyone gets a happy-ending, and in some cases we don't even know what their ending might be. That movie was like the antidote to that long ago moment, and I've always loved it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Generation Phone Home

Let me start by saying that for a not quite nineteen-year-old young man, my son has his act together. He had the same job for two and a half years as a lifeguard, where he routinely pulled people (mostly the very young, and rather old) out of the water before they could come into harm's way. His new job is at a retail clothing center that hired him as a manager. An appropriate level of responsibility, and he'll likely do a very good job. It's something that he can balance with school, and it earns him spending money.

Among his peers he stands out as being rather poised, responsible, and articulate. I'm proud of my son, is my point. He's never been in any kind of serious trouble, he has all the makings of a solid citizen. Aside from the fact that he dates like he's training for some kind of dubious Olympics, he's a good kid. But if he lost his cell phone I have no idea what would become of him.

Now, I'm forty-two, so clearly I had my son at a youngish age. A bit younger than I had planned, but that's absolutely fine, all things considered, that worked out well so far. I had a lot of responsibility growing up, and even if I hadn't thought I was quite ready for that responsibility prior to a certain stick turning a decided shade of blue, it turned out that I was. Probably because I wasn't able to phone home much, there really wasn't anyone to answer, for one thing.

I didn't grow up with a cell phone. In fact, I'm one of those adults who isn't particularly fond of the things, and although I generally carry one, I don't chat with friends as I go about my daily business. I sit down every now and then and have a nice long chat, but when I do that, that's what I'm doing. When I'm at the doctor's or the movies, or the grocery store, my cell is turned off. It is a great thing to have in emergencies, that's for sure. Unfortunately the fact that a cell phone can make an emergency situation much easier to solve has had the consequence of turning a cell phone into a problem solving tool. Perhaps more than it should be.

Just last week my son's alternator died as he was driving home, just as he was on an on-ramp for a 65mph highway, as luck would have it, and it was dark out. Oh how I loved his cell phone then. One call and my husband was out of the door, on his way to the rescue. He flagged down a tow truck, although we have AAA because even with an emergency flair, the car presented a safety hazard in the dark, on the narrow on-ramp. That's an emergency situation, and hopefully had we not been around to take the call, my son would have reached into his wallet, found his AAA card, and gotten help that way. That's what we reviewed after the car -- since repaired and back on the road -- had been safely towed to a repair shop.

Prior to that, in the same week, I was busily painting the house we now rent out, spending my day atop a ladder for the most part, I left my cell phone at home. I wasn't going to be available, I was only going to be gone for five or so hours, and clambering down from the ladder repeatedly didn't seem like a good plan. By the time I got home I had 8 missed calls, four of them from my son, three of them complete with messages.

He thought he was running out of gas, you see. He wasn't near an ATM, his funds were suspect because he'd been spending most of his money on the Dating Olympics and was awaiting the next day's paycheck. So he called me. Over and over. Leaving messages with an increasingly pleading tone to them. It evidently never occurred to him that I simply was unavailable because I had chosen to leave my cell phone elsewhere. My son is part of Generation Phone Home. The generation that believes there will never be a time when you have to simply think on your feet, solve your own problem, rescue your own butt.

Cell phones, they are great in many ways. Parents are far less likely to sit up at nights, creating dead-in-a-ditch scenarios. We know where our children are, who they are with, and to an extent, what they are doing. That's an improvement over the world in which I grew up where you'd have to hoof it to the nearest pay phone.

Yet, it causes its own set of problems. My son thought he was running out of gas, so he called me, but by the time I got home he was already there. Had he solved the problem? No. His final message to me was that he would simply have to risk running out of gas, and was headed home. Since I wasn't there to solve his problem -- this intelligent young man, a young man who saved the life of a three-year-old little girl when she wandered into the deep end, and away from her distracted parents -- didn't know what else to do. Not because he's helpless, but because he's never really faced that situation before. We solve our kid's difficulties for them, and I sometimes wonder if they know the difference between a difficult situation, and an emergency. After all, it seems the response system within them is the same. Phone home and await instruction.

This is the most resourceful and responsible person in his age group, according to almost everyone that has encountered him. When faced with what appeared to be an impending dilemma, he called for assistance, but when none was readily available, he didn't know what else to do.

Cell phones are great, but I sometimes think that as parents we forget to cover what to do when that option won't work. We forget that the only love relationship we will ever have in our lives meant to grow to autonomy is the one we have with our children. We've let the thing that spared us from worry and fear become the main tool our kids have when facing the world.

Don't get me wrong, I'm so glad cell phones exist. But it was because the Great Gas Crisis had happened just days before the honest to goodness emergency that I knew to sit down and cover with my son what he had to do if we had been completely unavailable when that had happened.

He'll learn, I know he will. Cell phones save lives every single hour of every single day but I'm also reminded of a case that was in the news a couple of weeks ago. Upon encountering a smoking pickup truck with two occupants trapped inside, a twenty-year-old young man picked up his cell, and called his father who lived nearby. His father drove to the scene quickly, and with the help of his son, managed to get the two people from the truck before it caught fire and was engulfed in flames.

What a wonderful tale of heroism. Of course, I couldn't help but laugh dryly, and thank providence that his father answered the phone. Generation Phone Home called Generation Save Your Own Butt and together, they got it done.

Somewhere in-between is likely the appropriate level of autonomy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mischief Most Foul: The Witless Coup

It gave a lot of people pause when I announced I was moving to a subdivision. They stared rather blankly when I added that it was on a (public) golf course, but they couldn't hold back the cries of dismay when I further revealed that it was subject to not one, but two Home Owner's Associations.

"Wow, what a spectacularly bad plan!" One friend cried out, while trying to repress a laugh. "You'll never be able to resist picking a fight." I assured her I would, that as long as the HOAs weren't trying to dictate what I could do to the interior of the house that we would get along peacefully. When you get right down to it, I tend to follow rules.

Oddly enough the exterior of our previous home would probably have fit within the guidelines of most HOAs. Well, perhaps not, for a long time we did have two gravestone sized concrete blocks, left over from a construction project, perched beneath our maple. It looked a bit like we'd taken to planting our deceased relatives on the family plot at the homestead. It seemed to amuse our neighbors, who were all of the same sort of cussed disposition. We had one neighbor who had attached Christmas Tree Stands all over the front of his house, not to stick trees in, up against the wall, like sculpture. Another would stick a Giant Inflatable Turkey in his front yard at every Thanksgiving and that's just for starters. Eventually we made better use of the gravestone twins, but not before my husband had planted a row of flowers at their base, making them dead ringers for the final resting place of someone or other.

But that was then, and this is now. Now we live in the subdivision best referred to as the Land of Bland when it comes to front yards. It's all very tasteful, it's all very neutral, it's all very controlled. I was assured they weren't actually that strict. That the nightmarish tales of HOA intrusion did not apply to this place, and I believed that. After all, there's a bright blue house within sight of ours.

I should have been tipped off that it appeared to be the only blue house in amongst the many tan, cream, beige and coffee colored homes, but I thought perhaps it just hadn't been a popular color among the approved ones.

As it happens, at our old home we had a hot tub, a better hot tub than the one that came with this place and since one had already been approved for here, it never occurred to me that I'd have to have special permission to swap one for the other. After all, ours is newer, nicer and technically better looking. When I found out that I'd have to inform the HOA, I didn't balk, or grumble. I set about contacting the proper channels. I was willing to play to ball, to conform to the rules. I'd still be willing if it weren't for two things:

1. The request will take more than four weeks to process. Yes, four weeks to approve swapping almost identical hot-tubs, accept that one is in much better shape, and it happens to be the one we're putting in. You know what? I was willing to do that. I heaved an irritated sigh, but I was willing, ready, able.

Until I found out the second thing.

2. The bright blue house belongs to the HOA president. He claims that the committee was unable to tell that the blue would be that bright from a chip, and therefore approved it. That the color was subsequently put down as being unacceptable after it turned out to be so vivid in real life. His house has been that color for three years, by the way. No fines. No pressure to change it. Suspiciously he's had landscapers in all summer also.

But I didn't set out to flip the HOA president off, I truly didn't. It just seemed silly to me. I've been having things delivered throughout the course of moving in. Furniture trucks, the occasional service truck, appliances have been delivered on more than one occasion. The swapping of the hot tubs would take less than a half an hour, and our neighbors agreed readily to the possibility of having to remove, then replace a fence panel. They also told me every tale of HOA horror you can possibly imagine, including that Big Blue over there is home everyday, all day.

That the landscaping crew our neighbors had in, the one I commented on working so hard? He had them rousted, with the help of the HOA treasurer, who lives three house away in the other direction. He'd sent an entire crew packing because our neighbors had thought replacing the paving stones of their walkway was within their rights, without approval. The reason they thought this? The HOA treasurer has an unapproved walkway.

It turns out that we inadvertently moved onto the street where several HOA board members live, and they all have violations. It isn't the actual violations that bother me. Frankly, I couldn't care less about paving stones in walkways unless they are capable of intelligent speech, in which case they might be intriguing. No, it was that evidently these people like to use their proximity to swoop down and enforce the rules on everyone but themselves. That irked me.

My neighbor, who is waiting out the approval process now, with her walkway torn to shreds, and half of her backyard in dusty upheaval, immediately consented to the removal of the fence panel. Then she gave me all kinds of advice for what time period would be best to try and sneak the delivery in and out. At the close of the conversation, she literally told me she'd be praying for us. In fact, it turns out that there are several neighbors around here who would absolutely love to try and get one in under the nose of Big Blue.

I looked up the amount I am likely to be fined. I also know that they can force me to remove the hot-tub and stick it in my garage, while I await approval. I know all that, yet I'm proceeding with the witless coup. I know how likely I am to get caught, and called out.

"I knew it, I knew it! You moved there fully intending to pick fights!"

I didn't. I swear. I fully recognize the futility of this, the absolutely pointless quality of paying to make a point. I don't even expect to get away with it. So why in the world would I choose to bloody my head against a brick wall in such a manner, and pay for the privilege?

Because Big Blue is a bully, and a petty little tyrant, lording it over other people that he is above the rules. I don't think there is even one thing I can do to change that, but I can at least openly acknowledge it in a letter to the HOA if I end up fined.

It seems silly to use a word like corruption when it comes to something like an HOA, but there you have it. They are corrupt little power mongers, yielding the rules like a cudgel, but paying them no heed themselves.

That's wrong. I told you, when you get right down to it, I follow the rules. Unless the people enforcing the rules are breaking them because doesn't it then follow that breaking the rules is actually the new order of the day? Everyone gets to violate the rules when convenient, or no one does.

No? Yeah, and when they fine me, I intend to point that out, in a variety of ways, possibly at a variety of volumes.

"I knew it, I knew it. It took you less than a year to pick a fight!"

Actually, it's the other way around. Big Blue started it.

My husband, an equally stubborn, cussed man with a similar vein of, "Hold on, that strikes me as being wrong." is happily plotting away also. The funny thing is, we both like blue. Heck, we like diversity, and nonconformity. We moved here for the views of the mountains and because I wanted a pool in my backyard. If we get away with our silly mischief, then I'm sure something else will eventually crop up.

It's silly, and it's stubborn. Civil Disobedience in the Suburbs but until I get a chance to say, "Excuse me, but you stop the construction of one walkway, and fine people for the exact same thing you allow for board members? Explain that to me. In detail." I'll feel like I'm cowering in a big blue shadow.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fwup, the Deranged Pigeon

"Oh, that's entirely too blue." My husband said, looking into the huge master bedroom. "What could they have been thinking?"

"That they wanted a shade somewhere between powder blue, and a manly navy?" Emptied of all furniture the room looked vast, and as if we'd awake in the night and assault each other with baby powder. "That's gonna have to go."

That was the case with many of the colors in this house. Where it wasn't the beige of ubiquity, found in nearly every office in the land, the house was painted colors that looked as if someone had been trying, and trying hard, but suffered from some peculiar form of color blindness. The Sage in the family room had landed somewhere between Sage and Pea Soup, the bright blue looked oddly as if had been bruised, and the lighter blue looked more like a color a psychologist might choose for an institutional activities room. Sedative Azure, maybe.

So we set about painting it. Who knows if our colors are actually better, or more tasteful, mainly they are just the colors we have chosen, as we slowly paint the former owners from the house. We went with a shade called Walton Cream, and did a candlelight over glaze, very lovely. Extremely time consuming, particularly given that we found out the former owners had a dog with a wetting problem, and they had been none too fond of cleaning up after it. We had the carpet shampooed three different times. I finally forced my husband to quit sniffing the carpet with promises of replacing it. But it was one of the things that kept us in the guest room.

It was thanks to the dog that we got to know the pigeons. We moved our bedroom furniture into the bright blue room, the one with the bruised green underlay. As I heaved up the window there came the same sound:


I have excellent survival skills. I hit the deck like a member of the bomb squad, elegantly squawking, "What the hell was that??" It was loud enough that I thought perhaps something inside of my actual brain had been making the sound.

"A bird??" My husband asked, staring around almost wildly.


"What it invisible?? Do we have a ghost bird??" I said peering up, and through the window. Hovering impressively in the air, three inches from my face was a Pigeon, not just any pigeon either, a decidedly put out pigeon. "Good lord!" I resumed my duck and cover as I heard the sash of the window crash down above my head. My husband had braved the ill tempered bird.

There was no screen in that window, I hadn't noticed before opening it. The Pigeon and I had been doing an eye tango with nothing but air separating us.

"Is he deranged? The hell, why did he just stay there?"

Then we heard the cooing. The whole side of the house echoed with nonstop cooing. I peered out the window. Fwup was still there, perched on the neighbor's drainpipe, staring at me, cooing in an agitated manner.

"Oh, crap. It's a nest." Not on the neighbor's house, on ours. We went outside and gazed morosely upwards, a nesting pigeon and her mate, Fwup sent us scurrying back inside. I had no idea pigeons were attack birds.

We conferred. The house echoed with coos. We decided that rather than trying to roust the beings, we would wait for their eggs to hatch, and the clutch to be sent forth in the world. In the meantime we thought the cooing rather pleasant, all things considered.

That was nearly a month ago, back when we were sane. For one thing, we realized we don't know much about the mating life of pigeons. We just assumed they were like the Robins that used to nest on our old house, that they would hatch their young and move on. We have begun to doubt that.

"Hey, what you are up to?" My friend asked after I answered the phone.

"Just unpacking and..." I was interrupted by the Echo of Coos. "Gah, hold on, let me get out of the aviary over here."

"They're still there??" She asked in dismay.

"Yup, we're still City Chicken Central."

"Aren't you going to get rid of them?"

For the time that it took to repaint the bedroom, we had awoken nightly to the sound of Fwup, taking exception to some sort of disturbance with his bird brain, cooing up a storm, fluttering like a fiend.

"I don't know. There's always winter." I said vaguely.

"I thought he was driving you crazy?" There was an amused tone in her voice.

"Well, yes but..."

"Uh huh." She laughed mercilessly.

"They'll kill them. There aren't any services willing to relocate them, but we can basically have them exterminated." I said glumly.

"Oh." She hissed in a breath between her teeth, seeing my problem. "Well, you know...huh."

"I know, and we've gotten sort of used to him." The cooing echoed throughout the house.

"You mean you're a wuss and you don't want to condemn him to die?"

I blatantly ignored the question of my courage. "I think his mate left him."


"Yes, unfortunately he spends most of his time trying to call her back, I think. She comes and goes, he stays and stays."

"Aw. He's lonely. Why don't you go out and talk to him?" She decided to take mercy on me. "So, how do you like the pool?"

I enthused about it for a few minutes.

"And how does Fwup like it?" She asked slyly.

A Change of Scenery

In the beginning of June we moved to a new house. New to us, that is. It's much larger than our old home, and it has a pool which is something I've wanted since childhood, and adore having. I do miss my old neighborhood though. I miss the people, the chatty neighbors, living in the metro area as opposed to the suburbs.

For years we lived in a rather blue collar area, small brick bungalows from the turn of the last century. Lots of pickup trucks parked overnight on the street. We knew all our neighbors, and they knew us. On Saturdays and Sundays the area was alive with everyone doing their gardening, frequently calling out to each other, exchanging greetings and the news of the week.

Here, during the day, in our tony suburb on a golf course we rarely see the neighbors. If you drive through the area during the day you see the same pickup trucks, they belong to the landscapers that tend the lawns. The battered economy cars tend to belong to the cleaning services. Everyone we've met here has offered to give us the names of their service providers. It's like living in a strange, new world where the societal dance is slightly different.

But I clean my own house, and my husband likes to mow his own lawn. We don't golf either, we just liked the house, and wanted the pool. The house if from the We Proudly Present a Huge Garage! school of architecture but so are all the houses around us. In fact, there are only four house colors approved by the HOA in the area, it's otherwise unobtrusive but the HOA here seems to be a big fan of beige.

We also soon discovered that we had inherited the house of the neighborhood jerks. We'd suspected that, after all, we met them. There was something odd, and brittle about them. They had a veneer of niceness but it didn't quite ring true. Turns out that the gut rarely lies. As I met my new neighbors, bringing names of services, and offering up book clubs, they all said the same thing, "Have you moved in yet?" and when we answered that we had, "You're so quiet!"

Well, not particularly, but you couldn't describe us as a noisy household either. There are only three of us in a rather large house, but my son has had friends over to use the pool. My husband and I have had the odd cannonball contest also. I suppose we are quiet in that instead of yelling for one another, we have a habit of finding the person we need to speak to, and conducting the conversation at the appropriate volume level. It's a strange thing but we are all anti-shouting.

The old owners were noisy. They had dogs that barked constantly. The wife was well known for more or less yodeling nonstop into her cell phone while out of doors. They weren't horrible people, not by a long shot, they were just thoughtless and rowdy. The husband of the family put me in something of a spot when he told me our next door neighbors had a son in the Merchant Marine. The fellow was ex-Navy, I figured he'd know. Unfortunately when I met the neighbors and brightly said, "Oh, and your son is in the Merchant Marine!" he winced. His son works aboard a cruise ship, studying to eventually be a captain. It was clear he did not appreciate the Merchant Marine tag. When I apologized, because it was clear that I needed to, I said I must have misunderstood what the former owner had told me. My neighbor glanced away for a second and dryly said, "I doubt you misunderstood."

Things like that started to add up and we realized that the former people were not well liked, and the neighbors were all vastly relieved that we are quiet, a family of readers, and thankfully (from their standpoint) not prone to throwing pool parties, which I guess used to be a weekly event here. We contracted in a couple of services to do that things the former owners quite simply did not do, although obligated to by the closing contract. One such thing was having the air conditioner condenser cleaned. To call that thing filthy would be kind.

On a mercilessly hot day the AC tech arrived. A huge man, he looked like he could twirl a Volvo above his head, but nice, soft-spoken and cheerful. I offered him something to drink, it was so uncomfortably warm outside. He turned me down, but thanked me, and as a result we ended up chatting throughout his visit.

As it happens, the neighbors with the son most decidedly not in the Merchant Marine, had landscapers in. A work crew toiling endlessly in the brutal Colorado sun.

"That's a hard job." The AC tech mused, towering above me by nearly a foot. "I couldn't do that job."

I ended up telling him all about our movers. Men who did a horribly strenuous job, lugging things like my elliptical machine up a flight of stairs without complaint. Truly back breaking work, and seemingly endless. When they left here, they were off to do another job that very same day. The lead mover was covered in gang tatts. You can't live in a metro area for long without recognizing gang tattoos, but he also had the tear drop tattoos, two of them. That usually indicates a prison tattoo. Yet there he was, clearly trying to turn his life around, and working tirelessly.

"That's so cool!" The AC tech said, "I wish the guy luck, you know?" I did, and I was so relieved to have had that conversation. I hadn't mentioned it to anyone here, not after a friend of mine said, "Oh my God, and he knows where you live??" That hadn't been my point in bringing it up. That man had been polite, well-spoken, and was clearly working very hard indeed. I was, and am, simply fascinated with the fact that he was working harder than almost anyone I have ever known.

The AC Tech also told me the best way to manage the air conditioning in the house. In Colorado it is quite hot during the day, but we essentially live in a high desert. At night the temperatures plummet, and opening all the windows at night, then closing up again during the day maintains a cool house. I already knew that, but I appreciated the advice. I thought it was sweet that he kept things like the public service bill in mind, and was helpful.

It was that night that I awoke to a strange sound, clearly audible thanks to the open windows on the second floor. A man, drunk as a Laird was having a truly loud fight with his wife, who was screeching back in her own drunken turn. It went on for close to half an hour, and my husband and I sat up, giggling, unable to not listen. Something about the grill, nothing vicious, just loud and rather funny. Mostly it was nonsensical but there was nothing inherently unkind in it.

"Oh the neighborhood will be buzzing tomorrow." My husband said sleepily.

"I don't know, seems more like they'll wait until they move and just imply things like mad."

It was the next day when the landscapers were back that I ran into my next door neighbor. I looked at the crew and without thinking said, "God, that really is a hard job."

"I know. I couldn't do it. " He replied. "By the way, if you need any tools while you're moving in? I've got them all, let me know if you need anything."

His wife joined us and we chatted for a while. Eventually she laughed and said, "Did you hear Romeo and Juliet last night?" I confirmed that I had. "Don't worry, that doesn't happen often. Luckily, they're happy drunks, but Friday night is party night for them." I nodded and said, "I could swear that I've met her. I think she asked me if I'd like to join her book club." When I laughed, I doubt they understood why, but joined in with good nature.

The scenery has definitely changed, but I suspect the people are essentially the same.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

It's Independence Day: Ladies, thank Science Fiction!

I know, I know. What?? What does the Fourth of July have to do with Science Fiction other than that dreadful movie with Will Smith? It depends on how you look at it.

If you are a citizen of the U.S. then Independence Day has a specific meaning, and a lot of people will lob talk of the Founding (and fallible) Fathers around. Maybe it's because my father was a historian, or my mother grew up in the U.K., I'm not sure, either way whenever July 4th rolls around, I can't help but think about how it would be almost 100 years before we outlawed owning other human beings, more than 140 years before women were able to vote and we're still trying to achieve equality for all. We're a work in progress, and that's okay. Independence is still a work in progress and some of that work is done in fiction.

Fiction gets a bad reputation, so does film and TV. We're told it is the mindless stuff of too much time on a couch and a lot of entertainment is pure escapism. We watch it with our minds in neutral, just trying to unwind, and again, there's nothing wrong with that. Fiction also makes us think about things we might never encounter in our daily lives, it can broaden our minds, reflect social ills, and even bring about changes in both perception and reality. Sometimes our fiction can be several steps ahead of our society.

It's always amused me that people are surprised that I like both science fiction and fantasy. Even my friends have a rather tolerant, head-patting response, as if it is a cute little eccentricity. That's fine by me, when science fiction is mentioned people conjure images of people showing up for jury duty in Federation Uniforms, going to conventions, or TV with bad lighting and a lot of green people with tentacles. Some science fiction is like that, and frankly, I don't watch much of that kind of sci-fi.

However, science fiction has taken on all manner of social ills, often during times when the government was attempting to control what was acceptable to discuss. When Rod Serling chain-smoked and asked for our consideration, or the Outer Limits pushed the edge of the envelope in what it was permissible to address, they did so through the use of metaphors and symbols. It's a very interesting genre and I'm not asking that everyone like it, but rather recognize that even if you don't, it has done some really interesting things.

Including push for, and in some ways help achieve in the real world, empowerment for women. In 1958 a truly dreadful film called Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman hit the screen. In it a wronged housewife grew to enormous heights and became incredibly powerful. It's still considered in film classes today for what it was saying about the plight of women in American Society. It's hardly a great film, but it was about more than giant aliens.

When I was a girl Wonder Woman was a TV series. A superhero(ine) made powerful, in part, by her accessories. Oy. In 1984, a year before I graduated from high school, James Cameron would cast the future governor of California as a Terminator bent on destroying a woman named Sarah Connor, a character who was, at the time, basically a magic womb. She was special because of who she would give birth to, not who she was. She needed Kyle Reese to convince her that she could be special, and she also needed him to save her from an annoying tendency to freeze in fear, and bleat like a terrified lamb, all while literally tearing at her hair. By the time 1991 rolled around that same character would become a formidable, powerful woman, who was as awesome as she was terrifying (and crazy, please don't forget she was mad as a hatter in that film).

The nineties would progress and a witty fellow named Joss Whedon would bring us a teeny, tiny blonde girl who was secretly the most powerful girl (or person, for that matter) in the world, capable of saving it over and over again. Stronger than any man and ironically named Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. If you think back over the depictions of vampires in books and films, their stealing of innocence, usually from helpless, screaming women, you'll get why she needed to be a Vampire Slayer.

In 1979 a character named Ripley bested an alien in a movie by the same name. Outliving every male authority figure, who had all perished partially because they wouldn't listen to her. She was strong, smart, resourceful and yes, she spent a large portion of the film in clad in her underwear but hey, she still saved her own hide from the monster.

Independence. Not being dependent. Needing only ones self. Many women over the course of several centuries fought to bring about equality. In some areas we are still trying to achieve it. It isn't what you do with your choices but the mere fact that we have a world of them available to us. It wasn't always the case, and it wasn't the case in 1776 by a long shot.

Long before straight drama began to bring us powerful women as the norm, science fiction and fantasy depicted women capable of anything. Representations in media matter, they always have. If you don't believe me, go and search out things like archived articles from Good Housekeeping, or the Ladies Home Journal. It's flabbergasting to see how so often print and film media put women in a box. Real women fought to get out of it and one area of film and TV took note, and changed depictions.

Thank you, science fiction. It wasn't the only genre to do so, and we all know from the Lycra-clad nymphets of several scifi staples that it wasn't perfect, but children learn to dream of what is possible through fiction. Adults learn to consider broadening their horizons through fiction. Fiction has a great deal of access to society as a whole because it so seldom tries to instruct overtly, but it does make us think on levels we aren't always aware of at the time.

If you are a U.S. citizen today is about the Independence of your country, and you'll likely engage in fireworks tonight. But if you are a woman, it's hard to pin a date on actual Independence. We don't have a specific date for a world of choices being available, just dates when our choices expanded. Our vision of who we can be keeps expanding, and part of that vision is brought to us through fiction. Science fiction has been telling us we are powerful with persuasive images, and characters for a long time. It didn't create that power, of course, it just recognized it.

Happy Independence Day, Ladies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"The artist is unknown...imagine that..."

Expecting a furniture delivery on July 2nd, I'd finally admitted defeat and called in professional painters. It wasn't begrudgingly, it was with a sense of relief and even wonder. One day to paint the large family room/kitchen area? Was that even possible? Did they have magic elves stuffed into their pockets? Or when you do something for a living, perhaps you simply are very good at it. That makes sense, doesn't it?

I've been painting, and then painting some more. Just wall, some trim. I don't really have a talent for painting, but in a pinch, I can do a respectable job. When I wasn't painting, I was cleaning. My brain moved into small circles, always pursuing the next thing I had to do, never fully concentrating on the current one. When your lists exceed your time, that's what happens. Even in the midst of doing something, your mind is busily engaged in the next activity.

"You're sure?" Nick, the very professional painter, who had shown up on time to do his estimate, said haltingly.

"Yes, absolutely." I replied, continuing to stare at the paint chip entitled "crocus", such a nice word, sounds a bit like a cross between a frog and a flower. Lovely shade of lilac, though. Besides, who doesn't like to think of a purple frog?

Then my mind moved to the next thing, "You see, I've got all of the artwork I want for this room and this will set it off well." and I began to show him. The picture of the cotillion I'd picked up in Vancouver. A lovely black and white photograph of dancers caught in motion. An Edward Hopper, I've always loved Hopper. An Emily Carr, the title of which escaped me, but it was of a tiny white church, in amongst the trees. Then I showed him the painting of the Indian Elephants. "Then there's this..." I hesitated.

He was being polite. Making the right sounds, after all, the job was a fairly large one. The quote over six hundred dollars. Not a bad haul for five hours of work. "This one...", the two elephants meeting, almost at a T-junction, and my voice trailed off.

"This...?" He asked with that marked courtesy. The thing that landed him jobs in this suburb. Being polite, being well dressed, in truth, being a very hard worker, and a good businessman. The pomp and circumstance he had to put on to get the jobs he would do so well.

"The artist is unknown." I said, and wondered. Such a lovely painting. Such a gift to others. Something to which I would turn to brighten our space, and set our imaginations free. "Imagine that."

Later, after the work was done, after the pictures were hung my husband looked at the clean lines surrounding the windows, the precision cuts over the cabinets. "I love it." He declared loyally, "It's so good to be rid of that seasick green!"

My husband is a good and tolerant man. He's learned to live with my love of color.

"I like it, too." I said, and glanced at the Indian print. "And the artist is unknown...imagine that."

My husband didn't notice what I'd said, he was busy examining the precision brush work.

I was busy looking at the painting entitled simply Indian Elephants II. I couldn't create that painting, not if I studied and practiced for years. I don't have that talent. This person, this painter, gave me something and I don't even know his or her name.

We hesitate to say good things, fearing what fate it will bring down upon us. That's what I think, at least. We'll tell someone, "Oh, I love that blouse!" before we'll say, "You know, you're a very kind person."

I went to the painter's website, the man who showed up on time, and did such clean work, and I left glowing comments in the testimonials section. All the while, I wondered who painted my elephants, those cheerful creatures that brighten my day, against my crocus walls.