Sunday, December 8, 2013


I am terrible about writing here. I've been writing some stuff for my technical blog! And not finishing and posting it. It's a little silly.

I upped the dosage on my medication, and now I feel pretty close to the "normal" of 2007-2009. I just had a cold, and I'm out of shape, so there's some ambiguity in the state of things. The key thing I'm noticing is that I'm sleeping through the night, naturally waking up between 5 and 6 AM, then doing zazen, puttering a bit, and taking a nap. Then often another nap in the afternoon/evening, as available. This is the previous sleep pattern that I know to be sustainable (if not always convenient), so it's a little like meeting an old friend, and I'm feeling more rested.

I went back to aikido today, and some aspect of my body was not happy about it--after a cold, my lungs often don't work quite right for a while. I have to be careful when I train, because my muscle memory allows to do many things that my muscle conditioning will only tolerate a few times.

Work is...enh. I switched teams, which is way better than before, but the problems have always run deeper than that. I feel a little bad for the managers, when the best I can offer anyone is "We'll see what happens."

Lastly, it's cold here! Usually we consider it chilly when it gets down to 40°, but we've been hitting 32° and occasionally down to 28°, even here on the flatlands next to the Bay. Nothing and no one here is equipped for an extended cold snap: it's obviously the worst for the area's homeless, four of whom died of exposure the other night (while there were open shelter beds, even). For the rest of us, we're wrestling merely with the fact that buildings in this area are generally uninsulated. This is just as true of buildings from 1999 as of buildings from 1938. The building code doesn't require it, and why should it? Unlike my brother's town in Minnesota, which recently hit a charmingly lethal -1° after reaching a balmy 4° during the day, it is entirely possible to survive 32° indoors under a sufficiently large pile of blankets. If you're a builder, insulation is an obvious corner to cut: you won't be paying the energy bills, after all.

We can't insulate the walls without stripping them to the studs, but with the pronounced cold, I am noticing that our floor really is cold, and remembering a friend who installed insulation under his floor and was much happier. We can also replace our four worst windows, which are all some combination of drafty, janky, and/or dangerous. (The glazing of our large 5'x6' bay window is so rotted that if anyone ever so much as leans against it, they will crash through and fall three feet to the ground, followed by nice pointy shards of glass.) All single-paned, of course.

Normally I set the heat to 60° overnight, and the house can keep that warm if it's only 45° out; with this weather it's running every hour or so.

We have ice on our windshields. We don't have an ice scraper. Why do we need an ice scraper? Luckily, years ago I discovered that if it's not Actual Cold[tm] (as it would be in a place with actual winter), if you just pour some water on your windshield, the ice melts.

It should go without saying that if you do this in a place where boiling water evaporates on contact with the air, pouring water on your windshield ice may just give you thicker windshield ice.

Time to go to bed, and climb under our numerous blankets.

Monday, November 18, 2013


J has been home the past couple weeks with chicken pox. There's a vaccine now! And he was about to get it, when he came down with the actual disease. I had no idea there was a vaccine. I'm not very educated about parenting. I take my considerable knowledge about people, and I've more or less learned to adjust it to kids--toddlers are still a challenge, but that seems to be universally true--but I don't necessarily know a lot of things about raising kids. Do they get adequate nutrition from apple juice and Doritos? Do they really need clothes that fit? How many days per year do I need to let them sleep inside at night? So many mysteries!

My ignorance comes from never having had to freak out about caring for a baby. I met J when he was 3 or so, and he was (and remains) very attached to a fabulous mother who knew all the ins and outs of caring for J specifically. It's not a small list of ins and outs, because he is off the usual map. I've picked up some of it, but to e.g. make his lunch, I still need to refer to the "Care and Feeding" manual she typed up. (For example, you have to pack the food in a specific arrangement in his lunch bag, or else he can't find anything. Also, the lunch bag has to be separate from the backpack, because it was separate from the backpack for years, and if it's inside the backpack, he won't be able to find it, and he won't eat lunch.) It's all relatively minor for kids on the autism spectrum, at least.

On this remarkable Sunday, we finally had Jim the electrician come figure out what was wrong with our garbage disposal switch. One day I flipped the switch, it sparked, and the power to the under-sink outlet died, and the breaker wouldn't reset, and I ran an extension cord from an outlet so we could run the dishwasher, and then we sort of called it good and I think it's been a couple of months. We couldn't remember which of the two switches was the disposal, anyway. The extension cord became a semi-permanent fixture, and we've settled for running the disposal periodically by plugging it in, often when the sink strainer stops up and the sink is full of delicious food-rinse water. I particularly enjoyed the surface layer of red oil that came after a meal with tomato sauce.

We'd replaced the switch already, and Anna had gone back in and reconnected the ground wire that someone had cut once up a time, but that didn't help. Jim was able to reset the breaker, using some arcane "push on it harder" technique he doubtless learned during his years of study with various Oriental mystics.

The next step was to try the switch again, which I did, and was rewarded with a loud *POP*, numerous sparks, and some kind of burning ember flying out of the switch and onto the counter. That's apparently what happens when a short circuit burns out: the ember is a piece of burning copper. (In retrospect it seems entirely possible another ember could have gone behind the switch and into the wall, but the one we saw extinguished quickly, and we're constantly at home for the next week. Good thing the house isn't insulated!)

Jim cracked the switch open, and there were just some side screws that had to be moved out of the way, or something. Now we have a garbage disposal again! We can dispose of things! Garbage will be disposed!

It is a good day.

Friday, November 15, 2013

hack hack cough cough hack

I don't do very well at writing these days. I'm so excited to have my brain back that when I have energy, I spend it learning things. Because learning things is what I do, and I'm able to make a living by synthesizing and applying the things I learn, and then learning from the application, in a virtuous cycle that keeps me from having to get a real job.

I've been feeling better enough that I went to aikido twice in a 7-day period, which hasn't happened since I don't know when--mid/early last year, probably. And afterward I felt the way I always used to! (Tired, logy, satisfied.) And I recovered in a normal amount of time! Pharmaceuticals are amazing. Not that we know what they're doing to me, but I'm enjoying life again, so I decided not to care.

Over the course of Tuesday, I developed a cold or flu or something. On Wednesday I worked a full day from home, Thursday I worked a half-day from home, and working today was out of the question. The decline has to do with quality of sleep rather than the sick, though. Briefly, it appears I had a slight fever, although since (a) I haven't had a fever in at least a couple decades, and (b) the awesome skin-reading thermometer gives me ludicrously high results on the first try--I'm pretty sure if I had a 101° fever I wouldn't be casually hanging out in the hallway checking my temperature--I'm skeptical.

Thinking back on my medical history, I've been blessed that before 2010 and what I might call the Great Decline, nearly all of my problems have been glaringly obvious to diagnose. Broken bones, bleeding wounds, concussions. There's no mystery. "I'm not a doctor, but you got washed over a coral reef, so that may be why your back hurts."

The Great Decline was unsettling because it's even hard to describe. Lethargy, absurdly long recovery from exercise, cognitive impairment...all tests normal. As always, on paper I am completely healthy. (I am grateful for a standard-issue no-surprises body.) Numerous rock-star doctors confessed bafflement. Now that there's a medicine that I take it forever? How can I even experiment, given the consequences? Does it fix the sleep apnea? (Okay, that one I can actually test pretty easily.) It's like a dark shadow out there in the woods, waiting to grab me again.

After months of trying to adjust my work approach to accommodate how my team works, I finally gave up, and I'm switching teams. There's a bunch of stuff around it, but it boils down to working in isolation and not having a use for my talents. Sounds like fun, eh?

I had a long IM chat with my new manager today. None of us are entirely sure whether or how this change will solve the problem, but it's an honest attempt. Plus it's really the only option available! I gather that my experience has generated some organizational turbulence, outside my frustratingly limited field of view. So we'll see how that goes.

At my last job I did the best work of my life, completely turning a team around, as well as its technology, while still delivering new features. The problem with performing up to your potential is that it then becomes really annoying to do anything less.

Monday, November 4, 2013

living all the things

Time is flying by, mostly an artifact of being busy and not doing the zazen and aikido that help slow down my experience of life. I did go to aikido weapons class last week, but then I promptly went to a conference in the City for two days, then had a three-day weekend visiting Ben in Minnesota.

Just two weekends ago we went to North Central Nowhere, New York for my cousin's wedding. With my wedding and my grandmother's funeral, I've seen more of that family in the past 3 years than in most of the past 20, which is great, because they're awesome. The cousin I'm closest to now has three great kids, including a gangly 13-year old in the classic male "non-verbal lack of eye contact" phase. On a recent visit with my 12-year old niece, I learned that one approaches these creatures by not talking; so I walked up behind him, tapped out his knee, held him up but severely off balance for a couple seconds, then put him back upright and walked away. We bonded.

I'm going to try to avoid flying for the rest of the year, though. It taxes my physical resilience, which is still coming back.

I finally bought and installed a Nest thermostat. Being able to control it from your phone or a website is more handy than you'd think, but overall I think it's a geek toy, and if you've got a functioning programmable thermostat, I can't recommend shelling out to replace it just on practical terms. It made sense for us because (a) we're dorks who like the occasional pretty gadget, and (b) our original thermostat, inasfar as it never actually turned the heat off once it reached a certain temperature, wasn't actually a thermostat.

I learned a little about thermostat wiring from this blog I read (the Nest bothers his heating system, but doesn't bother ours). I hesitated slightly on the installation, because there are two wires and they're both black; one day it occurred to me that if you've only got two wires, it doesn't matter what order they go in, so I could just go for it. (Current polarity does matter with individual LEDs, but even then the only thing that happens is the LED doesn't turn on.) The Nest is eminently civilized, a black glass circle on the wall, gracefully ringed with steel. The house is still cold, what with the dozens of drafty windows and general lack of insulation, but so far the Nest beats turning the heat on and off by hand.

I've been fantasizing about insulating the house. I'm not sure how practical that is, though. When I was a kid we had insulation blown into our house's walls, which involved drilling an endless series of 2-inch round holes in all the walls. They might be able to blow or stuff it into the walls from the attic. In reality, though, there are more important and effective projects: window repair/replacement, fixing the bathroom drainage, and adding piers below the house that aren't canted at a 20° angle.

J is doing pretty well, all things considered. His great-grandmother died, so he's been processing that in his J-specific way. He seems to be exploring ideas about death and adulthood in a much more mature way, thinking about what happens when he grows up.
"I'll have to live on my own?"
"Eventually, yes. Not until you're ready, though."
"But I won't be able to eat my favorite foods any more."
"That macaroni and cheese you like? They sell it at Trader Joe's."
We'll have to see what he needs when he starts pushing into adulthood, but it'd be nice if he could rent an apartment from us--over the garage, say, or if we moved into a different house with an in-law unit--as part of his transition.

Learning to purchase and make macaroni and cheese will obviously be a key part of that project.

Monday, October 14, 2013

scattered updates

We finally called the plumber about the bathtub draining slowly! It turns out the pipes underneath are installed backwards. We're trying to decide whether to spend a little money replacing the pipes, or a lot more money and effort re-doing the bathrooms entirely (they're gross and awkward, and need to be replaced). I don't see us really wanting to deal with a bathroom remodel in the coming year, but I've been surprised before. (By "us" I guess I mean "Anna," since she'd be managing the project.)

The specialist doctors reached a dead end with me! Suboptimal, but it's nice to have some resolution. Instead, I talked to my GP about a semi-plausible theory I had about fatigue and neurotransmitters, and got him to prescribe a psychoactive drug, which...helped me feel better after just a couple days, much to everyone's surprise. Over the past few years I've had a lot of variation from week to week, but after 3 weeks it's safe to say I've been feeling and (mostly) sleeping better--I've gone running a few times and recovered the way I used to. Today I could swear I felt almost rested, though that's not historically a familiar feeling.

Anyway, yay for drugs! Who knows why they work.

The new job is okay. I work with smart, nice people, and I'm learning stuff, and that's really the baseline. I don't know that it's lighting me up, impression is that because of the split between the SF and Palo Alto offices, there's a limit to the magnitude and kind of impact I can have--for example, I don't feel like I can help guide the engineering culture from down here. And since I joined, I've been working alone on a bunch of stuff that no one else seems to care about. It's possible it's critically important and everyone just has every confidence I'll get it done in a reasonable amount of time, but since no one really asks, that feels like a bit of a leap.

But who can tell? I easily get crabby about work, especially in the absence of feedback and context. It's a good place to learn things and find my feet again--to say nothing of paying my mortgage--so in that respect it's working out well.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

damp signs and moist portents

We have tacitly declared Fruit Bankruptcy: the remaining pluots and figs are falling and rotting on the pavement, to be shoveled into the compost bin...sometime. Whenever. Too much fruit. The apples don't taste good and we don't like pomegranates, anyway. This was the learning year, where we were just discovering even what trees we have; we'll prep for next year with tree pruning, removal, replacement, and some kind of fruit-preservation scheme. Fruitpocalypse 2013: NEVER FORGET.

As much as we were overwhelmed by fruit, our attention was suddenly diverted last week by an unusual and mighty rainstorm. On the bright side, water does not, in fact, puddle inside the garage, exactly, instead being partly absorbed by the wall, and mostly flowing out into the driveway!

On the other hand, as we sat in the living room enjoying the weather, we heard a sudden crashing of sheets of water on the front porch, and discovered a section of gutter which no longer inclines towards the downspout (maybe due to the house settling?), instead just overflowing over a section of the eaves. There's another section of gutter in back which has no downspout, not even a place to attach one, and unsurprisingly that gutter just overflows in place, running down the kitchen window and the side of the house.

All of which is still better than the kitchen pipes that were leaking out the wall and over the foundation when we bought the place, so I think we have a good sense of perspective.

We talk and think about the house more than we actually work on it, I think. If you can imagine a fictional VW minibus that looks sketchy, and you can tinker with endlessly, but it actually runs reliably (I said this was fiction), that's sort of our house.

(True story: my brother bought a VW bus once. Twice it broke down on the way home from the seller's house. Eventually he bought something like an old Honda Civic that was easy to fix and chugged along until dying years later, at long last, north of 300,000 miles.)

So the rainy-season fixes have been re-prioritized. In moderation, of course: the roof is blessedly new, but every window needs to be replaced. There are lots of windows! And windows are expensive. And ours are funky dimensions. We'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

words every father longs to hear

I lost my job in mid-July. They processed it as a layoff, but that was just them being nice, because as far as I can tell, my boss just didn't like me. This happened at my previous job as well, which makes me think a bit about how I might manage my managers more gently; unfortunately, there are no obvious lessons. I could be a different person. Except I can't.

This is the fourth time I've lost my job, and while it always sucks, it does get easier. You start to see it coming: if you have a meeting with your boss and HR shows up, you're screwed.

In this particular case, I'd already gotten a remarkably dumb ultimatum:
"I'm really burned out and I need to take a break and work on something else."
"Nope, you can stay where you are, or quit."
So I was already interviewing, and at most two weeks away from giving notice when they let me go. In fact, I got two verbal job offers on the same day. (It was a lot to process. I got home that night and literally couldn't form sentences.) Had they talked to me honestly, we could have had a smoother transition and the company could have saved a month's salary. Not that I'm not grateful for the money, but all told I would rather have had time to say goodbye.

Managers are, so often, so stupid.


Yesterday morning I told J I have a new job that's closer to home, except for the days I go up to the city.
"Do you still work at [old job]?"
"No, now I work at [new job]. I left. Well, I was removed."
Anna chimes in. "He was fired."
"Well, kind of. Technically I was laid off, or terminated."
"What's the difference?"
"You get fired for cause, you can't collect unemployment--"
"Oh, right."
The child is a little agitated at this point. He has a hard time remembering arbitrary facts about people, and he's comfortably known where I work for years now.
"Why do you keep changing jobs? Why do you keep getting fired?"
"Huh? I don't keep getting fired."
"Yeah you do. Amalgamated Video, and Mathematica Inferna, and Unlimited Hazards..."
"I wasn't fired from Unlimited Hazards, I left."
We all had a decent talk about how this is just a thing that happens, that we change and our employers change, and sometimes even a smart, hard-working, generally nice guy like me just gets shit-canned sometimes. And my job-changing is at a pretty normal rate for the industry.

"Why do you keep changing jobs? Why do you keep getting fired?"

family resemblance

And just like that, summer's done. After last year's insane activity (3 family plane trips and 2-3 campouts) we kept it more or less low-key this year. I had a brief overnight to Boston for a job interview, and then we went to visit my family on Cape Cod. At that point I'd been at my new job for about a week, and it turns out it's really easy to detach and not work when you don't actually know how to accomplish anything.

J loves the Cape, and my parents, and my nieces. He loves the water: last year we had to stop him walking out over his head, because he couldn't swim, even though he thought he could. He just kept walking, breathing be damned. But this year he can actually swim, and quite well, so he had a ball and we just checked on him now and again to make sure he wasn't headed for Maine.

I love my two older nieces, and they've given me a few good parenting moments over the years (especially the younger one). They have grown up to be truly marvelous young proto-women. They whine a lot, but their hearts aren't really in it--they lack a deep commitment to whining. They do it out of habit, because at their house, that's how they get what they want. When they come up against me, I set more rigid limits, and they tend to adapt quickly in really heartening ways.

One time, when the younger one was maybe 7 or so, she was trying to get all doe-eyed and manipulative on me. I looked at her.
"You seem to think I've never met a little girl before. You are wrong."
She giggled and meandered off.

This time, they were substantially older, and the whining was most often under control, except for one evening when it went on and on and I was done. I looked at the younger one and smiled.
"Okay, that's enough whining. Shut your cakehole."
(I should say that I had never said that to anyone except as a joke. Because who says that? Except as a joke.)

The whining continued. I have another, carefully developed way of speaking, where my face is smiling, but my voice really, really isn't.
"I said that's enough. You. Cakehole. Shut."
The whining stopped.

I can't help but remember an episode from my own childhood, when we visited my father's brother in western New York State. My little brother and I were fighting, as usual, and finally he was done putting up with it, and he sat each of us down at each end of a very long couch.
"Stay there, and keep quiet."
"How long do we have to sit here?!"
"Until donkeys fly."
The injustice!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

one well-placed sentence.

We have had a busy month here at the Snugglehaus!

My new job has started out well--I'm not accomplishing a ton, but no one's expecting me to have an immediate impact, so it's all good so far. The programming language, Scala, is quite challenging: it's probably my new Worst Language For Beginners. It's big and complex and full of things, and I don't see how you can hope to work in it without 3-5 years of deep experience with other languages. I mostly like it, though.

My new co-workers are super nice and smart, which is most of what I hoped for in this job.

After a week on the job, we did our annual trip out to Cape Cod to visit my family. My brother surprised us by bringing his family down, originally for a day but extended to two. (J's comment: "Yay!") My nieces are fabulous with him, and he loves them even though he has trouble remembering their names.

He has started ranting about sexism and racism, which is completely awesome, but also gets funneled through his sometimes limited ability to detect when something is actually sexist or racist. I was talking to my niece E and--when "talking" veered into "loving mockery"--called her a "delicate little flower."
"That's sexist, and you shouldn't say that."
"Which, calling her a delicate flower?"
"Okay. I wasn't actually being sexist, and I promise I will explain why after dinner. Deal?"
The reason it wasn't sexist, of course, is that E is the opposite of a delicate little flower, and she and I both know it, and J knows it too if he just thinks for a second. His keen eye for injustice overran his ability to hear my facetious tone of voice. This is an excellent problem to have. He knows the world can and should be a better place, and he thinks that's super important.

Fast forward to today, with a couple friends over for dinner. Disney movies come up in the conversation, and he goes into Rant Mode:
"Disney is nothing but a bunch of money-grubbing, racist, sexist... [trail off into the usual muttering]"
He's referring to Disney kids' movies, of course: I decided to save the complexity of Disney as a corporation for another time. (Racist, sexist movies for kids! Longstanding support for gay rights, starting before it was cool!) But! He's observing, without understanding.
"Yes! You're absolutely right that lots of Disney movies are racist or sexist. Your next task is to do some reading and find out why those movies got made, and why they're still so popular."
Jaw -> floor.

Does life have any greater pleasure than stunning a talkative, intelligent, strongly opinionated child into ten seconds of silence?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

the wrong way to ask questions.

I got my bachelor's degree in computer science, but I went to a small liberal arts college (I started out in theater), and my major was a small minority of the credits needed to graduate. I took a lot of classes just because I felt like it, either for good material or a good professor. (People will tell you "choose professors, not classes," and while that's ridiculous as a universal policy, it's a decent rule of thumb.)

One semester I took a class on the Holocaust. The professor was from Union College, and was, to put it most plainly, a cranky motherfucker. Maybe that's how he managed being an expert on human horror. He was a good guy, as far as I could tell. He wanted us to learn, and he worked hard at it. But some people, when they have learned to be authentically themselves, are crabby bastards, and every sentence out of them feels like they're squirting you in the eyes with a water pistol.
One day Italy came up in a lecture.
"...going back to the architect of Italian unification, who was...?"
Awkward silence. Who the hell studies Italy? I took a year of European History in high school and I have no idea who he's talking about.
"Come on, you refugees from social studies class!"
Seriously? You learned about Italian unification in social studies? What society do you think you're teaching in?
Behold, the sound of 90 students thinking, "Who the hell is Garibaldi, and why did you think it was reasonable we should know that?".

(The class was amazing, by the way. Success in college means weathering these kinds of half-assed attempts at interactivity during lectures.)

Friday, July 19, 2013

meet the neighbors

We hit a milestone in home ownership! Our first zoning hearing.

There's a duplex directly across the street which is obviously used for some kind of residential program, with 6-9 people or so always milling around, getting in a van and driving somewhere, smoking outside. When we moved in, we had a few people say, "That's a halfway house, you know," except that none of them had bothered to actually look into it and discover that it's the residence house for a private substance abuse rehab clinic. The patients live there, and the van takes them back and forth to the meetings downtown.

We thought to introduce ourselves, but when I walked over there, the staff member came out and we didn't have an encouraging conversation.
"This is private property."
"I know, I just bought the house across the street and wanted--"
"Yeah, this is private property."
Oookay then. Anna tried another time, and had the same conversation. She sent them a "Hi, we're your neighbors" email, and didn't get a response. Well, fair enough. Maybe there's a policy or something. We think rehab programs are important, and we understand they have to protect the patients.

Other neighbors' hushed voices notwithstanding, the rehab center isn't really any trouble, except that the residents' smoking/social area is right outside all our bedroom windows. They can come out as early as 6 AM, and are sometimes outside as late as midnight, and because they're humans, they're talking and sometimes laughing. It sounds like they're right outside our window, because they are: 65 feet with no obstructions.

We've been living with the noise, because there's not that many people and it's bearable. Then we got a notice about them applying for a "Use Permit modification" to let them have more patients.
More noise + They won't communicate with us = We have a disagreement
We showed up for the hearing, which was fascinating, and we met the treatment center people in almost the most awkward way imaginable, by getting up afterward and testifying why we think they shouldn't get their permit. The Executive Director and Manager were very gracious and concerned to meet us afterward. They were shocked that the patients were out that late, that we had been chased off the property, and that we hadn't been able to establish communication with them.

Today one of the Residence Supervisors stopped by, and he was also shocked at all those things. Even though there's staff awake 24/7 at the residence house. So...that's three layers of management, none of whom seem to have any clue that their patients are outside after lights-out. It doesn't seem a good omen.

At least they're nice, so far.

Except for the lady who chased us away.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

fruit explosion!

As I catalogued earlier, we have a ton of fruit trees. Figgy has been going gangbusters, so I made a nice quickbread with whole figs in it, which got split between Anna's grandmother and Arlene, the nice old lady who lives behind us. Delivering the bread to her was, of course, a half hour of sitting down and chatting, but she's fun to talk to.

Then we had too many figs, so I made whole wheat muffins, replacing the water/milk with fig puree, and additional sweetening with maple syrup (one of the delights of our white figs is that they're not super sweet). They came out fabulous, getting stickier and more filling every day. I may seek a lighter recipe.

Figgy now seems to be on hiatus, and our peach tree in front finally self-destructed, its primary branch breaking off under the weight of dozens and dozens of rock-hard peaches. Four inches at the base, I had to cut it into four pieces before I could even move it out of the car-space in the driveway.

(By the way, if you ever do any tree-trimming, I cannot recommend highly enough the Fiskars Power Tooth® Softgrip® Saw (13"). I have never in my life seen a saw this efficient. (I once cut down a 5-inch thick tree with a small hunting knife. I know about efficiency. It's super comfortable to use and you'll just throw your straight-bladed tree-trimmer away.)

We collected all the peaches, and now I guess we'll try to ripen them? In paper bags, apparently. Or use them to break car windows. But really, we ripen them, and then what? We've got a hundred peaches. We'll figure it out.

The peach tree hasn't really been happy anyway, so we'd planned to replace it when tree-planting time comes around. Perhaps with a lemon tree that actually produces lemons instead of 2-inch thorns? Possibilities abound!

Finally, our scrappy little apple tree is getting into the act! The apples we know come from so much grafting and cultivating that we can't actually tell if the apples are ripe. We have yet to try the obvious thing of picking one and trying to eat it. While I can't speak for Anna, I know I've been resistant because there just aren't that many apples, and what if I pick one and it isn't ripe? I'll have wasted an apple! Such are the quandaries of urban farming.

Mmm, perhaps I will go have a fig muffin, and not have to eat for another 12 hours.

work explosion!

It's been a very full week! On Monday I was informed that it was my last day at my job of the past two and a half years. The head of HR was extremely gracious and kind, and treated me like a trusted colleague: I had time to clean the personal stuff off my laptop, send a calm, loving goodbye email, and wander around saying farewell to whoever I could manage.

It's always tempting to try and give people a narrative when you're shown the door. I've been strenuously avoiding that, but in the face of numerous emails saying "I didn't even know you were leaving, I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to say goodbye," I have to respond that it was a surprise to me too. It's important to me that these people, who I care about, know that I wouldn't just leave without warning or saying goodbye.

I've now talked to every available source, and I think I have a decent picture of what happened. Conclusion: what a clusterfuck. Time to move on, then.

As it happened, I was completely burned out and trying to switch teams so I could get a fresh start on something else. The outcome of that conversation was what told me it was time to go. On Monday morning I also got two informal job offers (where they say "please come work here, we're getting the numbers ready"), so I was already a little disoriented when The Fateful Meeting came. By the time I got home I couldn't really carry on a conversation.

I've had a couple of days to settle, and I'm wrangling the end of the job-search process. I despise interviewing, and I'm only erratically good at it, so to some extent I end up only at companies that see the value in me beyond my not-very-dazzling ability to solve programming problems. I've managed to tune the search process pretty well, so that all the possibilities condense relatively quickly into a clear choice. It's never quick enough for the companies' taste, but they can cope: hiring is incredibly difficult and expensive, and especially in the current environment and with people at my level, they can't afford to be petty and withdraw offers that don't get a quick enough response.

(I actually spent 20 hours in Boston last weekend for an interview, and I was explaining to my parents that it costs so much to hire one person that the $1300 it took to fly me out there doesn't even register. One way to measure the cost is to note that tech companies commonly offer referral bonuses of $5,000, and often $10,000 or $15,000, and they consider that a bargain.)

We're in the condensing period now, the home stretch, which is nice, because then this part will be over. I'll have a job somewhere, and life will go on to the next thing.

I have one offer outstanding from a really excellent company, and the hiring manager has been terrific at listening and working with what I say about my experience. I noticed today that while I am more stressed, trying to manage everyone's expectations and communicate in a kind but firm way, he is also stressed! They really want me to work there; hiring at my level is practically impossible right now, especially once you filter out for culture fit and temperament. I was reflecting on how universally stressful the process is:

  • Recruiters get judged, one way or another, on the success of the hiring process.
  • Hiring managers need people.
  • Candidates need jobs.
This means that at every transition in the process--failing the phone screen, not getting an offer, turning down an offer--someone gets screwed, or disappointed, or kept from their goals. Usually several someones. Even when a candidate fails the interview, the company has lost precious employee time down a black hole.

I'm pretty beat, from the endless phone calls and emails and introductory talks and interviews. I'm glad it'll be over soon, and then I can start actual work, which is often a lot less work than trying to find work.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

work. :-(

A couple of people at work genuinely wanted to know how I was doing after last week's shenanigans, so I ended up venting the whole story to both of them. I hadn't realized how much emotion I've been carrying throughout this experience, until it started to come out in those discussions. Anger, sadness, helplessness, all kept in check until I could get clear of the whole thing and let it all out for processing. Once you allow a crack in the dam, though, you're probably done for. That's not a bad thing at all, but it did make for a heavy 3-day week, with many days to wait until the next bit of movement.

On the other hand, my response to the sad events is energizing. There's nothing to perk up your day and take the pressure off like taking charge of a rough situation, making some decisions, and taking action.

One of California's many quirks, if you're from the Northeast, is the presence of fruit trees. Did you know oranges and lemons grow on trees? And figs? And that these are things that you can grow in your yard, without very much work? In New England these are things you buy in a grocery store, full stop. This is also the magical fairyland where I can seriously plan to have a big grape arbor with multiple kinds of grapes, which I will then eat.

The majority of our trees are fruit trees, in fact. Mostly decades-old, poorly-pruned fruit trees.
  • 2 cherry plums (plus a dead one).
  • 1 loquat (not very happy, and the squirrels have eaten all the fruit).
  • 2 peaches.
  • 1 apple.
  • 1 orange, picked clean by the departing tenants and desperately in need of pruning.
  • 2 charmless, non-producing, incredibly dangerously thorny lemons.
  • 2 figs.
We had the first harvest of plums a few weeks ago, in the neighborhood of 10-15 pounds from one tree. (Anna made plum syrup, but we gave about half of it away.) The rest of them seem to be ripening in a nice not-all-at-once manner.

But the figs. My god, the figs.

One fig tree we call the Threatening Tree, as it's partly dead and looms over the garage (alas, not enough to do serious damage and have insurance build us a new garage). It's been showing ripe black figs for weeks, but they're about 30 feet up and we can't get to them.

The other tree is Figgy, who is the same vintage as her sister Threatening Tree, but instead of shooting straight up, has grown out more, to become about 15 feet wide and 20 feet high. She is currently covered in figs, mostly hard and green still, but ripening more by the day. They may number in the thousands. In about 10 minutes we gathered four handfuls. Figs appears to be more or less squirrel-proof, since fig branches are to slender and flexible to support a squirrel.

So. Many. Figs.

They're delicious! But we're trying to stay ahead of the coming Figpocalypse, and find people who want some figs, as well as researching recipes for ourselves. As I continue feeling better--I suspect resolving the work situation will make a big difference--hopefully I'll make some fig breads.

While I certainly don't urge people to buy a house, I have been really surprised by the sense of place it provides for the three of us. We won't be here forever, but while we's ours. It's good.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

...and sometimes you just feel bad.

There are shenanigans afoot at work. Shenanigans, I tell you! I wrote a post with the full story, but then decided not to post it. I probably never will: professionalism, not airing dirty laundry, that sort of thing. Suffice to say that good people with honest needs and intentions are coming together to produce an organizationally idiotic decision with a serious impact on my life.

A younger me would have taken this personally, but there's no malice or bad faith here. It's just not about me, which in some ways may be the problem. If they were responding directly to my needs instead of to their own guidelines, they might be making a different decision.

So there's only anger if I decide to let myself be angry about it. Mostly it's just sad.

Friday, June 7, 2013

trouble, that's spelled with a "T"

As planned, I did eventually buy a pool table. It took the guys a couple hours to assemble.
pool table
With the slates leveled and glued together (some people use spackle; this guy said he put cardboard between them and filled the gap with Bondo, which I assume is more or less reversible someday). You can see the side clearance.
pool table
Almost done, about to attach the skirts (the wooden side panels).
pool table
All done.
pool table
The table is made by Brunswick, which is one of the best manufacturers. If you've ever gone to a reputable by-the-hour pool hall, you've probably played on a Brunswick Gold Crown, whose design has aged pretty well. That's not something you can say for a lot of objects who look like they were made for The Jetsons.

You'll notice that my table looks like a dining table, and in fact it comes with wooden leaves to put over the playing surface. It appears to be a sort of experimental thing from Brunswick: the mechanic says he's only ever seen a few, and the Internet knows nothing. The surface plays fast, and the rails are excellent (especially compared to the janky bar table I grew up with).

It came with 5 cues, only 2 of which are straight; and a set of balls, all of which are beat up and most have little gouges and chunks missing. So if anyone wants to get me a good set of billiard balls, Father's Day is coming up. =)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

good fences

I put up a fence.

new fence

Having received a thoroughly liberal arts education, complete with bona fide New England prep school, I can't possibly put up a fence without thinking of Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall:
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
It's been years since I read it, and I'm glad to find it's not quite as inane as I remembered. That said, it was written in 1914, and hasn't aged well. The upheavals of two World Wars really did a number on artistic relevance over time.

I think that if I had acres of orchards, I'd be more inclined to agree with him. Instead, I have a corner lot in a dense urban area, a house which has been a neglected rental for decades. The yard has felt not quite ours, more like poorly-maintained public space, especially the side yard. Our elderly neighbor out back, here since the 60s, says people will come with ladders to pick from the orange tree; we've seen people picking the roses. Passers-by are accustomed to just wandering across the lawn while talking on their cell phones on the corner. Bits of litter blow in, or are dropped by the high school kids.

There's also José the Car Guy. Every Latino-heavy neighborhood I've lived in (this is #3) has the Car Guy, someone who has a habitual stretch of curb where no one cares that he's illegally fixing cars on weekends. Because no one cared about this house, the Car Guy would work on our corner.

This is all sort of whatever--we live in a city, he probably needs the money, and I don't want to be a jerk about it--but then one Saturday I watched one of his customers direct their son to dump used coolant in the greenbelt at the side of the house (between the sidewalk and the street). I went out and told José that I don't mind if he works out there, but dumping chemicals is not okay. I had a bit of a chat with José, and a longer chat with his friend Manuel, who (a) speaks better English, and (b) wasn't trying to replace a brake rotor.

(J actually emerged from the house and talked to Manuel more or less like a normal human, which was amazing: introduced himself, failed to start shouting when Manuel said "I bet you like sports," and excused himself when Anna called him. It was incredible.)

The coolant-dumping incident motivated me to start setting up wireless cameras for surveillance. I already planned to do this because of the epidemic of burglaries up and down the Peninsula, combined with the difficulty of actually securing the house; José gave me a reason to try one out in a "trust, but verify" way. I genuinely wasn't trying to drive him away; filming the corner isn't very friendly, but neither is dumping coolant into the grass. There's been no sign of him the past couple weekends, and I am indeed hoping he found another curb to work on.

Our fence is not a major physical barrier. You can drive through it, see through it, crash through it, walk around it. I can barely describe the difference it makes. By drawing a line around our yard, it feels like...our yard. It's a way to say that yes, we realize no one has cared about this house for decades, but that's different now.

So stay on the sidewalk, and don't pick our oranges.

Friday, May 24, 2013

part-time camping

Greetings from the gleaming local metropolis of Turlock, California! Apparently the second-largest city in Stanislaus County, after Modesto. The core Bay Area has mostly forgotten the Laci Peterson murder, so we're back to forgetting Stanislaus County exists, except perhaps in stories about almond orchards, or crystal meth.

Anna and J are sleeping at the campsite on the Tuolumne River; due to a sequence of commuication and logistical errors, I'm here at America's Best Value Inn and will make the 40-minute drive back and forth a few more times before we leave on Sunday. This ultimately ends in an unwillingness to experiment with sleeping without the CPAP machine; the CPAP needs electricity, which the campground doesn't have, and here I am, doing the kind of crazy thing that seems built in to parenthood. Last time I raced back home in an overheating car with a severely damaged radiator to retrieve a forgotten suitcase; now I'm commuting to a campsite from a motel 30 miles away. Some family experiences are easier than others.

I don't think I've been to this part of California's vast Central Valley before. Some differences are subtle, like the greater number of Spanish words on the storefronts: one building had "MUEBLERÍA" painted right on the wall, Latin America-style, from which I suspect they're aiming at less-integrated Spanish-speaking customers who may not know the word "FURNITURE." Other things, like the frequency of shuttered storefronts and abandoned buildings, strike you more immediately. This is Republican political territory, a place where conservatives can live out and proud, not furtively closeted as they tend to be around San Francisco. (San Francisco and American conservatism have their own Cold War of long standing, just like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., but without all the dialogue.) They can cheer on their U.S. Representative as he joins the quixotic votes to repeal Obamacare, and if their State Assemblycritters form part of a permanent legislative minority, that's okay: the structure of California's government means that a dedicated minority can still successfully destroy the system of public higher education. Because the Bible says lower taxes are more important than our children's education and opportunity to improve their lot in life!

Okay, I'm paraphrasing.

I had planned to visit the pool hall here in Turlock, Sharkey's Family Billiards & Pizza; I had not noticed or anticipated that it would be literally on the other side of the block from the motel. It's a good place, with decent equipment and a family vibe.

Tomorrow: another day on a beautiful river with the wife and kid, surrounded by the constant chatter of birds.

And then back to Turlock!

Two great tastes that make you wonder why anyone would combine them.

Friday, May 17, 2013

weird songs of the past few years

I don't listen to experimental music or anything: I've gone to see ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and Kronos Quartet and I do not like them. Even the world of pop music spits out some weird songs sometimes, though. I hear them on Radio Paradise, or KCMP, or SomaFM. Sometimes they make it big, sometimes not. I thought I would collect and share the ones that came to mind.

This one did get the chance to be overplayed on the radio.

This was also all over the radio, though it took quite a while for me to warm up to it. Listen to it carefully, though: it's layered and crafted, just with some beats in unexpected places.

I have no words to describe this one.

Is this the weirdest one? I don't really know

I'll leave you with the most recent one. I keep listening to it, but can never actually remember the melody otherwise. I love it because it's weird, and catchy, and the singer is a baritone. It's a sad song, about a failed marriage ending in divorce. But it's weird, and delicious! Who makes songs like this?

The end. =)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

leveling up

A few times lately, I've been asking J questions to guide him to acknowledging some contradiction in his view of the world: for example, one day he started watching what I was doing on the iPad, and said "Oh, you're just reading again. Reading is boring." He proceeded to walk away and become absorbed in a book.
"Wait, you're going away because I'm reading on the iPad?"
"And reading is boring?"
"So you're gonna go read instead?"
He enjoys this as much as anyone does, which is to say only grudgingly, if at all. I do it anyway, because hey, it's fun for me.

This week, though, we've moved into new territory, as I'm able to remind him of claims he made only a half hour previously.
"Are you sure? Because you just said X like a half hour ago."
"Chris, having you in the room is more annoying than... [trails off]"
"Aw, I love you too."
"Chris, that doesn't make any sense."
His teenage years are gonna be awesome.

(Last night during the tucking-in I told him, "I love you no matter what you do, even if you think I'm annoying." He said, "I didn't really mean that you're annoying." I know what he meant.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

house and home

I visited the doctor this week for a followup, and with the CPAP machine, my body has largely stopped freaking out: my blood pressure and resting heart rate have returned to normal-for-me. I don't bother talking to doctors about what's normal for me: they are uninterested in a blood pressure of 140/90, even if it's been 120/75 for a couple decades now. They won't bat an eyelash if my heart rate is 76, even though my entire adult life, it's been 62-67 at most, when I'm not heavily exercising. Most people don't actually listen: throughout the past couple years, when I have known down to my core that something has been wrong, my favorite response was "Well, you are getting older." Thanks, genius. Not only do I know I'm getting older, but I've been paying attention as it's happened. I know my body well.

Anyway. I try to avoid going deeper than "I've been dealing with some health issues," and I'm a lot happier that way.

It's hard to believe we haven't even been living in the house for a month yet. It's such an incredibly pleasant space to be in, and there's so much of it. We get to where we think it should end, and wait, there's another room! And a giant garage! And a shady back patio! And a driveway the size of Texas! We're adjusting to not being able to locate everyone by sight or sound at all times.

It's fun to putter around. The nice thing about a fixer house is that no matter my level of energy or interest, there's always something that needs cleaning, demolishing, re-arranging, or re-attaching. Last weekend I got the well running again, just because I have a well, and why not? We haven't quite decided if it's worth bringing it up to code; if the water tests clean enough for irrigation, we probably will.

Anna has covered the most important windows with blinds and curtains. She likes fixing things, and her repairs are much, much better-looking than mine, so she does most of the interior work, as I have shown myself repeatedly unable to hang anything level on the wall. (Yes, I've used a level. Yes, I screwed it up anyway.)

We're slowly developing plans to nuke the yard and turn it into something we actually like. We're getting to know our many trees, which now mostly surprise us when they're not fruit trees. Cherry plum, fig, orange, lemon (not fruiting, for some reason), peach, and apparently an apple tree, and then something in back that's starting to fruit, but we still haven't identified it. It's quite a nice large orange tree, but we won't get more fruit until next year, since either the tenants or the sellers completely stripped it before we took possession.

Not all of these trees are nice, or in appealing places, or pruned in sane ways; but we'll see what we can do.

I had set aside the idea of getting a pool table, but then this one turned up. I wasn't considering a bar table, but it rang all my memory bells and I'm pretty certain this the model we had in the basement when I was growing up. Newer, and in quite better shape, but I very much remember the design of the pockets, and that weird slot for storing cues. It's a robust table, able to to survive life in my garage and use by a grade-schooler with erratic motor skills. Also, cheap: bar tables are definitely on the "please get it out of my garage" end of the price spectrum.

Friday, May 3, 2013

not quitting my day job

Life continues, I think without any tremendous upsets. Though if there were, I don't know that I'd remember just now, the same way I sometimes forget to tell doctors I had my gall bladder removed. It's done now, so who cares? Evidently I didn't need it anyway.

In the Department Of Useless Skills I'd Rather Not Have Time To Develop, I am becoming a fairly skilled pool player. The other night, after endless missed shots, I found this article, and noticed that the expert player at the next table was in fact letting his cue slide loose several inches in his hands after it hit the cue ball. It made an immediate difference, and last night I was consistently sinking all the shots where I know where the ball is supposed to go. In other words, my ability to place the ball is catching up to my understanding of where it needs to go. Tonight I stopped by Otto's, a Latino deli that happens to have a pair of pool tables, and won against a comparable player twice in a row.

Hurray for enjoyable unwanted hobbies, I guess. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy pool a lot, and it's been fun to really study and understand the game. It's especially fun to really develop skill at something I've known since childhood, but it turned out I've been playing in the most amateurish way all these decades (which is also true of backgammon). Yet, this all comes about because I have to keep myself awake for 90-120 minutes after I want to go to bed, and I'd much rather be able to go to bed.

Friday, April 19, 2013

it continues

We have DSL now, making the place quite a bit more homelike. The DSL installer ran a nice fresh cable through an existing hole in the stucco, helpfully drilled by some previous occupant who split their DirecTV feed through every room in the house, via coax cable running mostly along the outside. One of the coax splitters outside--an uncovered splitter which is not meant to be outside--is "grounded" to the metal box housing the circuit breakers and the eletric meter. Just sort of clamped on. There's a phone wire going up and over to the garage, to service the former illegal apartment there.

One side benefit of the DSL install is that I now know which wires I can safely remove: all but one. I'm going to need a bigger ladder.

It looks like two of the trees in the back are probably cherry trees. A third looks pretty dead, and a fourth may be another Mystery Fruit. The house came with far too many lethally spiky things: ten rosebushes, two lemon trees, and in pots, a healthy prickly pear cactus and some big aloe plants. I tend to think we can trim the thorns off the lemon trees and ditch the roses and succulents; Anna and J seem to take the presence of the spiky things as a personal affront, and vote for removing the lemon trees as well. We'll probably keep the healthier lemon tree.

We're down to two urgent projects: flooring in the back entryway so we can install the washer and dryer, and window coverings for the street-side windows. After that, we've got a fully functional house and we can take our time a bit with more projects. For myself, I'd like to clean the outside and make it look more cared for: strip the redundant cables, scrub off all the cobwebs, paint over the graffiti, get some surplus materials and make a first pass at a fence, to discourage people from taking our roses and wandering around the yard.

Feeling like we can take our time is a whole other practice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

house house housey house

We are all moved in! We spent Sunday doing the final packing and deep cleaning, wiping off millimeters of sawdust and decades of grime. The walls are whiter, the cobwebs are gone, and on the inside it's less obvious how much the place has been disdained and neglected. It's still pretty obvious on the outside, since there are cobwebs on everything, but we had to clean the inside before filling it with us and our stuff.

Carlos the handyman wasn't able to come over this week, being at the hospital for some reason, so we wished him well and had an actual plumber come over to look at more plumber-suitable things: re-connecting the stove's gas, installing the dishwasher, looking at the garbage disposal that had worked but now just hummed angrily, fixing the shower which we suddenly discovered this morning wasn't working. While he was here, he discovered that
  1. Carlos installed the sink plumbing backwards and upside down, and if we had used it much more, it would have started leaking all over the area where we just had everything replaced because of the decades of the sink leaking.
  2. The garbage disposal was humming angrily because it was full of solidified grout, from when Carlos and his guy grouted around the sink.
So if we continue to use Carlos, it will be for things like removing trees, rather than anything super complicated, delicate, or nice-looking.

The plumber apparently didn't charge the full time he was here, perhaps correctly reasoning that a couple who can afford a plumber, who know nothing about plumbing, who live in a house full of substantial projects, will be in need of a plumber for many years to come, and this is a good business relationship to cultivate.

Continuing my strange experience of seeing potential changes that would make the house better, I'm starting to see how we could gut and re-arrange one end of the house at a time. Not sure what to do about the bathrooms, still.

This place is enormous. I grew up in a 2,000 square foot 4-bedroom house (not unusual for suburban Massachusetts), but I've spent the past decade in California-sized houses and apartments. Our palatial 3-bedroom condo apartment that we just left was 1,130 square feet; this house alone is 1,390 square feet, with lots of walls and doorways, plus a garage. If you're looking for someone, they could be anywhere on 5,000 square feet, with lots of places to hide. Finding the kid will be a challenge, if he doesn't want to be found.

It's home, though.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

stay on target!

Monday is Moving Day! It turns out we could have timed things better, but it all looked reasonable three weeks ago when we made all the various commitments and plans. I can't stay home from work this Monday, for example.

I was thinking the apartment looked really crowded, and in trying to figure out why I realized that while we've got about the same boxes of stuff that we did 20 months ago, we did acquire lots and lots of furniture: 6 storage shelves, 4 bookcases, a wine rack/cocktail stand, a small desk, and an enormous (9 feet long) couch. We've quite a bit less room for stacking boxes.

There's an arc to packing, where everything seems impossible and overwhelming, and then suddenly most of the shelves are empty, and it's hard to move around because of the (filled and taped) boxes. You have pulled your possessions out of all their corners. As you mentally run through the remaining packing work, you foresee the lingering hours when you will throw random things--things you didn't want to be without for even a few days--into the last boxes, continuing while the movers start their work.

Most of our shelves are empty.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

coherent writing is for the weak

I am still not sleeping well consistently--two good nights in a row would be progress. Right now I tend to get one good night in a week, have one productive day at work, and then it declines from there. I'm also a bit frustrated with pool, since the more tired I am, the worse is my hand-eye coordination and fine motor control. I'm enjoying my membership at the pool hall, though, so at least I'm playing in a better environment and I get to watch and occasionally play against better players.

I do not enjoy staying up numerous hours past the time when I would like to go to bed.

The house is moving a little slowly now, because most of the week has been devoted to the floor guys, which means no one else can get in to do anything. The varnish isn't drying as fast as the guy thinks it should, but there's not much to do except wait for it. There's still work for the painter, too. And we're supposed to move in a week from tomorrow. I realize we have to let go of control and outcomes; we also have to get all our stuff out of the apartment. It's all very exciting. We'll be happy to be moved in.

When I peek through the windows, though, the floor is beautiful.

Anna met with some garage-door installers on Friday, and an analysis of the garage reveals that rather than put any real money or effort into it, we should tear down the entire building and put up a new one. If I remember, I will do a short photo essay illustrating the comprehensive list of problems; suffice to say that it was never terribly well sited on the lot, and then it was enlarged by about 50%, and not by professionals. They did a solid bodge of it: it's been standing for probably about 30 years, and will last another 10-15. And replacing a garage is Money[tm], even just for materials, even using beautiful salvaged materials like we were drooling on yesterday. So there's no rush, but on the other hand, we don't need to baby it, either. We get the freedom of knowing you're almost certainly not going to make things worse.

I have some vision for the front yard, which itself is striking, because I don't usually have visions for things. I'm not the Vision Guy. The vision involves tearing up the entire yard, since there's this nasty plastic sod mesh that's close to the surface in most parts, and takes out the grass when you pull it up. Once we do soil tests to see if it's safe to grow edible things, we'll make a plan, destroy the lawn, put up a fence, and plant things. It often occurs to me that there are things I can reasonably do with a house that I couldn't with a rental, like plant a grape arbor that will take 3 years till the first harvest.

Oh! And the big gnarled tree in the yard is a fig tree! With figs starting to grow on it! I like the string of surprises, whether it's the fig tree or the terrible garage. It's like the world's most expensive grab bag of random crap.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

the map is not the territory

The other night, hanging out at one of my standard bars, I won against a drunk guy (who could beat me easily when sober), and when I left, I spontaneously decided to check out the remaining pool hall in the area, The Great Entertainer in San Mateo. I'd written it off since the guy on the phone said it was $14 an hour, and it looks sketchy as all heck from the outside. I figured I'd at least stick my head in, and it occurred to me that maybe they had memberships or something. I don't like being in bars, I don't like being around the kind of people who like being in bars, and I don't like playing on bar pool tables.

Now, I'm not going to say Great Entertainer is nice, exactly. Most of the tables are a few decades old (which doesn't really matter), with thin felt (which can matter, but mostly looks bad). The "restaurant" claim on the remarkably content-free website seems questionable: I didn't examine the menu closely, but did see "HOT POCKET" and "CORN DOG" on the sign. On the other hand, the manager and regulars seem nice, all the furnishings and trim are quite new, and the balls and house cues are good quality. And they do, in fact, have monthly memberships! Unlimited pool, Sunday through Thursday, either daytime, nighttime, or both. So I joined, and now on non-weekend nights from 7 PM - 1 AM I can go play as much as I want, on quality equipment, without spending a ton of quarters, free to practice however I need to, and being around other people who want to play pool. And even a few others who actually want to improve their game.

At least for the time being, this is much better than having my own table. I avoid my ambivalence about putting a nice piece of furniture in the garage, especially over the repellent partial linoleum flooring. It gives me one less thing to think about and plan for, when I need my energies for the house and the family and getting back to productivity at work. I still want a table, because there's nothing like being able to lazily wander ten yards away to shoot pool in the comfort of your own home, with or without friends. This is a great stopgap, though, giving me the constant stimulation I need to stay awake past 10 PM or so, and giving me the chance to study and practice the game more pleasantly.

The house! It is nearly habitable! The new and old wood floors are sanded and beautiful, even with the old floor's bizarro green stains that are forcing us to use a darker stain than we want. (It turns out we want a darker floor more than we want a green-tinted floor. You have to make the weirdest choices, sometimes.) Our passel of Craigslist-bargain appliances lurks in the garage, awaiting the signal to colonize the kitchen. The kitchen itself looks much happier with a wood floor and rebuilt under-sink cabinet. The kitchen sink plumbing no longer leaks out between the wall and foundation, the errant icemaker hose no longer leaks into the dirt of the crawlspace. All sources of musty smell--carpet, moldy drywall, decades-old under-sink leaking--have been removed and replaced. The kitchen will be unrecognizable once the painter has stripped and refinished the cabinets.

You get the idea. It's been a long list. In the "aw, fuck it" department, we chose some easy-to-remove vinyl tile for the laundry room/rear entrance. If we go to the effort of making things really nice, that room is probably going to go away entirely.

Once we move in, I need to set up soil tests for the yard and water tests for the irrigation well, and then we can decide what to do with the yard. I think the half-dead lemon tree may have to go, since I had never really noticed they grow terrifying 2-inch thorns and I nearly impaled my hand this afternoon when I went to casually grab a branch and lean against it. Screw you, lemon tree! You're a jerk.

The concern with the yard and well is that there used to be a lot of nasty industrial sites in the Bay Area, to the extent where some Google employees, like Netscape employees before them, have been exposed to the vapors of the Superfund site under their office building. I want to grow grapes and veggies in the yard and use the well to water it all, so if the property is full of lead or something, that's important.

Given how much time we spend going back and forth to the house, supervising workmen who are both competent and honest, I can really appreciate why everyone complains so much when the house is farther away or the workmen are bad.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

house work

The house looks remarkably less janky every day, which is gratifying. The biggest current work is the painting and wood-floor guys. The painter thinks the flooring guy has to finish first, otherwise he'll screw up the finish quality of the painting; the flooring guy thinks the opposite. Anna resolved the détente somehow, and work is humming along.

(Normally one could call this a "Mexican standoff," but it turns out I'm not at all comfortable with that idiom when I'm pretty sure the participants are, in fact, Mexican.)

Our wood floors are damaged somehow, with green stains that show stubbornly through most varnish colors and are too deep to be sanded out. We'd told Flooring Guy that we were fine with seeing the marks in the floor, but in this case he was right and there is some really unappealing stuff there. This means we're getting darker floors than we wanted, but we're not prepared to shell out for a new floor, so there we are. The new floor in the kitchen looks spectacular, and the paint jobs have the bedrooms looking enjoyably habitable, which they definitely weren't before.

It's really striking to me that, had the owners chosen or been able to give a shit, they could have done a fraction of the work we're doing (which is not at all expensive as remodeling goes) and gotten another $100,000 when selling the house. Instead, they were slumlords and content to extract money from low-income tenants who would tolerate the kitchen plumbing leaking out over the foundation, in return for $2600/month--more than we pay in our very nice but admittedly underpriced rented condo--and no questions asked.

(This also means that barring a low-end housing market disaster, which seems vanishingly unlikely for our situation, money spent on making the house pleasant and livable is a good investment. Honestly, the way the market is running crazy around here, I think we could have done nothing to the house, held it for 6 months, and sold it at a [not necessarily large] profit.)

Friday I got an electric lawnmower, and yesterday we bought All The Appliances[tm]. We were surprised by the price of new appliances, and decided to take our chances on Craigslist for everything: for the price of a new dishwasher, you could go through 3 or 4 on Craigslist, and they can't all be broken, if you use some common sense about who and where you're buying from. (We got our dishwasher from San Carlos; I would not, to take one example, buy a dishwasher from East Palo Alto.) Since we'd rented a cargo van for the fridge and dishwasher, we decided to go ahead and get a washer and dryer today and just not have to think about it any more. "GE? I've heard of GE. Go for it."

Apropos of nothing, if you don't do it regularly, moving a large refrigerator is not a simple or fast project. Especially if it doesn't fit through the front door and you have to bump it around the side of the house, down a path of flagstones set in mulch.

I have numerous friends who absolutely cannot tolerate this kind of casual decision-making. They must research hand-made tiles and $2000 dishwashers that are certified the world's quietist by the European Parliament. They buy washer-dryer combinations that talk to each other with a USB cable, so the dryer knows exactly how much water was in the clothes. They drive Audis and Mercedes and sometimes wish they had Teslas, and seem to find my enthusiasm over my lowly Mazda a bit baffling. The stereo has to be Very High Quality, as does the TV. Professionals would envy their kitchen (they are fabulous cooks). You get the idea.

It's true, they own nicer stuff and live in a nicer house than we do. They also have two tech incomes instead of one, and I don't think they're any happier for having more restrictive standards for the artifacts in their life. Quite the opposite: they show a lot of frustration when dealing with inferior stuff.

Anyway, back to me. The important one here.

Since we move in two weeks from tomorrow, I'm about ready to pull the trigger on a pool table. It feels a little weird to be putting it in a garage, and then I also have devious plans to figure out a way to move it without needing to re-level the thing. Then I realized two things:
  1. Putting it in a garage is one reason I'm not buying a super expensive table.
  2. It's my pool table, and if I feel like I'll enjoy it more by carefully drilling some holes in it, I get to do that.
I grew up with a kind of caring about our house that argued against taking risks or experimenting with changes: minimizing holes in the wall, being extra careful with the pool table. (Which wasn't very nice, but things were more expensive 30 years ago.)

That's not the world I live in, though. I can build grape arbors or shade structures or drill holes in the house or whatever. The truth is that I'm unlikely to make it that much worse, and it will probably end up being more awesome.

Monday, March 25, 2013

James Bond: so close, and yet so far

I still haven't watched Casino Royale (1967) or Diamonds Are Forever (1971). I promise I will, so you don't have to. I'm just not up to it at the moment.

When picking a movie for Anna and I to watch together, I jumped ahead to Octopussy (1983), which I think represents the beginning of the franchise's long, slow rebuilding of a modicum of dignity.
The villains! The actors who were in these movies! Telly Savalas, Max von Sydow, Michael Lonsdale (who I know only as the mysterious Jean-Pierre in Ronin), a very young Christopher Walken; Grace Jones as Walken's henchwoman, who apparently can't act, but is a stunning physical specimen who could surely pop your head off with her thighs.

Robert Davi, Christopher Lee, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Yaphet Kotto. These are phenomenally competent actors, but you wouldn't know it from their Bond performances. I wish I knew anything about film, because I feel there are deep themes in the historical sweep of the Bond movies. I want to ask: When you make a Bond movie, what, exactly are you trying to accomplish? It's clearly not "making a good movie," if "good" applies to the acting or the script. The plots go through varying levels of contrivance, but at all times you're conscious of how the script bends over backwards to avoid breaking the almost universally loose molecular bonds of the story. Human beings like Bond and his enemies do exist, more or less, with remarkable skills; however, those people do not fail to shoot someone from ten feet away. Nor do they decide, after Bond has nearly foiled their plans numerous times in the past 24 hours, to leave him alive to witness their triumphant global domination or blackmail or whatever. No, these extraordinary humans, their astonishing potential honed into a multifarious weapon by years of training, these are serious people. In real life, if someone jeopardizes the mission, they shoot that someone in the face immediately, probably more than once.

GoldenEye (1995) represents a sort of reboot, though the word "reboot" doesn't exactly apply here, since the Bond franchise has never tried too hard for continuity. Every movie opens with that view down the barrel of a gun, which expands onto the opening action scene, which itself either starts or ends with Bond having sex with some woman (sometimes both). After Timothy Dalton's vengeful assassin Bond--though, to my earlier point that the Bond actor does not make the movie, Dalton did not write the particularly grim script for Licence to Kill (1989)--Pierce Brosnan really is a breath of fresh air. His Bond is dignified, classy, and takes an earnest delight in his work that none of the other Bonds quite found. One often feels that Connery, Moore, and Dalton's Bonds feel their careers as something of an imposition, a burden they carry to serve their country (and in Dalton's case, to work out his psychological torment). Brosnan's Bond is having fun. He's an adrenaline junkie, and once the fistfight is over, or he's successfully parachuted off a cliff onto a fleeing airplane, or had a successful car chase through St. Petersburg in a stolen tank, he gets the same boyish smile normal men might get from buying and using new power tools to successfully build that buffet table they saw on The New Yankee Workshop.

The airplane and the tank are both from GoldenEye, by the way, and the tank especially shows what I mean by the script contorting itself to support the story. Some screenwriter got really stoned and decided there should be a tank chase, and shamelessly wrote the script to make that happen. The result makes the script kind of "meh" as a story; however, TANK CHASE. IN ST. PETERSBURG.

More than Bond's enjoying his job, GoldenEye marks a bit of a shift in the franchise's almost-inevitable chauvinism. The wholly remarkable Dame Judi Dench takes over as the spymaster M, the first actor to make the character interesting. Miss Moneypenny, M's secretary, has been developing gradually throughout the films. Lois Maxwell's fawning, unrequited love for Sean Connery and Roger Moore eventually grew unbearably pathetic. Caroline Bliss's Moneypenny clearly lusted after Timothy Dalton's Bond, but had no illusions about it ever happening. Now, Samantha Bond's Moneypenny sees Bond for the gifted spy but emotionally stunted man that he is, and she's happy to flirt, but wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole.

I don't know how far this can go, though. What is James Bond without the casual sexism? Whether the movie plays the sexism straight (the helpless, naive cellist in Licence to Kill), or as a backdrop for a surprisingly competent woman (when Michelle Yeoh kicks his ass in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)), it's part of the character.

Perhaps I will live to see J.J. Abrams re-make Bond into a woman, once he's done with Star Trek and Star Wars.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

house in progress

We closed on the house on Friday. Everyone's immediate question is "Do you have keys?", which inevitably wound up awkward because
  1. The sale didn't get recorded until Monday (apparently why people don't close on Fridays).
  2. I didn't get a key until Tuesday.
  3. I didn't care that much.
Getting the key is a big symbolic thing, I guess, but boringly pragmatic as I so often am, I just think, "If the county says that I own the house, I don't need the key--I can pick or replace the locks." Plus I didn't need to get into it for anything.

The remodeling started yesterday, with taking out the doomed kitchen floor, which was covered with nice, absorbent particle board! Perfect for a room with lots of water splashing around.

As predicted, I'm learning a lot about houses in a big hurry. For example, seeing the dirt of the crawlspace because your kitchen floor is gone takes a little of the mystery out of how a house is put together.

Our handyman is named Carlos, and while his English is fine, he's glad I speak pretty good Spanish. Establishing communication is fascinating, and only about 60% successful: Spanish-speaking cultures have very different conversational styles, and I'm flying completely blind. Every conversation requires 10 minutes of repeating the same facts with different phrasing and expressions of agreement. I believe he is also finding this unsatisfying, because he knows where the conversation is supposed to go, and I have barely a clue, so I think I am being inefficient even by the standards of ordinary native Spanish. We'll muddle through, of course: we're both nice, competent people.

There are so many decisions to make, though. If it's this much work to manage two guys who are honest and capable, I can scarcely imagine how much worse it can get. Now I know why everyone complains.

The house smells so much better! Whatever held the musty odor stinking up the entire house has now been removed to the trash pile. It is really a lovely little house: the living room has giant windows, which someday will look out on greenery instead of the street. At nearly 1400 square feet, it's California-large; even the unfinished wood walls with children's writing on them have a nice vibe. The wood floors are beat to hell, but you can see the wood underneath and get a sense for how it will look when it's refinished.

This is the first house I ever walked into and actually saw the potential in. I'm glad I took that seriously.

Monday, March 18, 2013

news from the haunted fishtank

I've continued my journey through the James Bond films. Despite the ubiquitous viewer passions, there are no clear patterns of quality that follow actors or directors. People will be convinced that, for example, Roger Moore ruined everything he touched, or that On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) sucks because of George Lazenby. Lazenby didn't help, of course: he wasn't actually an actor, he bluffed his way into the role, and you can tell by the way he's play-acting rather than inhabiting the part. But he didn't write the terrible script, it's not his fault Diana Rigg would have outclassed almost anyone, and presumably he didn't cast Telly Savalas as a really, really, really lame supervillain. Similarly, yes, Live and Let Die (1973) is awful, but Roger Moore didn't write a script whose racial themes make Shaft look like Malcolm X.

Lest you want to blame it on the director: Guy Hamilton directed Diamonds Are Forever (1971, possibly the worst of the entire lot) and Live and Let Die, but also the excellent Goldfinger (1964) and the entirely serviceable The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Honestly, the 60s and 70s produced a vast, awe-inspiring trove of terrible action movies (The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, all intensely boring), and I think the Bond films simply got caught up in the times.

Now that I'm feeling more mentally present and like an ordinary sleep-deprived person, I'm getting back to Mad Men, which I left at the beginning of season 2. I don't know what it's like to watch if you actually lived through 1960, but it tends to confirm my suspicion that it was a pretty crappy time to be alive. The white men have all the power, but they live in a straitjacket of roles and expectations, unable to express themselves, create, or freely love. Anyone over 35 30 or so has the extra bonus of being scarred by service in World War 2 or Korea. They drink a lot. I've been drinking more than usual the past few weeks--I've just discovered the Old-Fashioned--and let me tell you, I cannot conceive of drinking at their level. Every conversation seems to require straight whiskey. How do they work?

If you're not a heterosexual white male, you're pretty much hosed. Women get called "sweetheart" and coerced into sex at company parties, eking out scraps of power and agency whenever and however they can. So far (season 2, episode 2), black people exist only as an underclass of amiable laborers in the background. Homosexuality is furtive; there's a gay character who stays safely closeted and, at least where men are concerned, celibate. And who could blame him? This world is why words like "heteronormative" had to be invented.

In one scene at a multi-family weekend barbecue, a child runs through the house and breaks a dish. A man grabs the kid and slaps him:
"Watch where you're going! You understand?"
This man turns out not to be the kid's father; the kid looks at his father for confirmation, and the non-father demands:
"You want some more?"
The father says, "No, he understands, don't you? Go on, play with your friends."

These are the educated, well-off middle class: mid-level executives with summer homes and shiny new cars. They're not shown as icons of domestic violence. The casual violence in child-rearing resonated, and I realized that these adults on Mad Men are (roughly) my parents' parents, carrying the baggage of the Depression and war. The world for them doesn't make any sense: their previous 50 years, 1910-1960, created fractures my era's generations can barely imagine, even with the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 9/11 epoch.  They're trying to live out the roles they saw their parents live, and it's not working because everything is broken and shifting under their feet. They inhabit their lives like a pair of shoes that don't fit, but they insist on wearing them because those are The Shoes One Wears.

They're the kind of lives that get you talking about "living with authenticity," with the inevitable difficulty of clearly defining what "authenticity" is, but knowing in our heart of hearts that these people aren't living it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

grab bag o' updates

I've had a couple nights with the CPAP machine, and while I still feel crappy, I am noticeably more clear-headed. That's still not saying a lot, but I've been able to do some things about the house, and Anna and I have enjoyed me being able to have conversations again. (We like each other! Good thing.) I seem to wake up after a couple hours on the machine, and then it's too distracting to fall asleep again, so I take it off. It's a process.

As we know from watching House, sometimes the only way to determine if a medical condition is present is to treat the patient for the condition and see if the symptoms go away. There are other sleep apnea treatments, but they don't work on everybody; in theory, if you have sleep apnea at all, a CPAP machine should help you. I think that's becoming pretty clear, so once we've established the apnea is the problem, I can look at less baroque ways of treating it: one friend can't tolerate CPAP, and likes these ProVent things. I'm not sure I can tolerate CPAP either, and in any case I'd like some options that don't involve being tethered to a machine with a wind tunnel up my nose for the rest of my life.

As part of my epic staring-off-into-space project this year, I've started watching all the James Bond movies, in order of release. It turns out I'd never actually seen most of the first one, Dr. No (1962), and it is surely among the best of them all. Thunderball (1965) was much better than I expected or remembered, and far better than its later remake under a cloud of legal and financial disputes, Never Say Never Again (1983). I watched From Russia With Love (1963) recently--meh. Goldfinger (1964) is notable for the discussion at the beginning about how the U.S. and the U.K. use the world's gold reserves to calculate "the true value of the dollar and the pound," a reminder that in 1964 we were still in the dying days of the gold standard (Nixon unilaterally killed it off in 1971). The idea of a currency having some "true value" has to make you laugh, if you grew up with free-floating international currencies and you understand that money is a consensus social fabrication. (A critically important one, for individuals and for civilization! But it's a fabrication, created out of our collective imagination, to lubricate the machinery of human societies.) And Auric Goldfinger is the archetypal Bond villain, repeatedy declining to kill (or even shackle) the obviously-dangerous Bond, deciding instead to explain his devious plans prior to executing them. And Goldfinger's associate is named Pussy Galore, which wasn't exactly subtle in 1964, either.

I am skipping 1967's Casino Royale for the moment as being too challenging, but I'll come back to it eventually. I'm currently on You Only Live Twice (drinking game: take a sip for every scene of Orientalist pandering), and am dreading the terrible, awful, insane Diamonds Are Forever, with their creepy gay sociopathic assassing couple (whiskey. tango. foxtrot.) and hideous 70s...everything. The shag carpet and the big glasses and the bell bottoms and awful filmmaking and (if I remember correctly) the substantial blaxploitation.

I've slacked off a bit on playing pool, because I've found I lack the mental focus to play well enough to keep myself entertained. I stumbled onto league night at a local bar, though, and got myself onto the list of alternates, since they've got a full team and haven't really seen me play. I watched the other guys (they're all guys, but you knew that), and I definitely fall squarely in the right skill range, at least when I can play at all.

I still want a pool table, but I have mixed feelings about dedicating almost the entire garage to it. Bar tables are built to be flipped on their side for moving and storage; good pool tables, the kind I would like, are not. In fact, there seems to be no universally accepted mechanism or technique even for moving a non-bar table around in the same room--which, itself, sounds like an intriguing construction project. (You have to lift the entire thing all at once: no levering one end at a time.) So I need to measure and draw and think about stuff. In the meantime:

mini pool table.

The house moves steadily towards closing. The price is agreed and the loan is approved, and there's still a ton of paperwork, but those sweet, juicy closing costs are paying someone else to do it. The tentative plan is a week from Monday, then work to make it habitable should start immediately and take 2-3 weeks. (I don't know how long it will actually take, but there's reason to believe the Remodeling Ninjas know their stuff.)

Let's see how I'm doing:
  • Got married.
  • Acquired a kid.
  • Buying a house.
  • Bowling Billiards league.
I think I next have to buy a lawnmower. And a Shop-Vac, of course.