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 d├ętente 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.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

new pool table!

Warmup for the real thing.

I'm surprised at how useful and fun this is. The balls feel like regular resin, just half-size, so they've got weight and they make the satisfying click. It's 4' x 2', the same proportions as any full-size table. The table play is good enough that I can realistically practice a lot of things (like shooting straight at a distance), and it means I don't have to go to a bar when I get the itch, unless I want to. Which is good, since I don't actually like bars.

$25 well spent, I think.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Most of us have been sleep-deprived at some point: children, college, work. By coincidence, I caught some of tonight's City Arts & Lectures, which starred UC Berkeley sleep researcher Matt Walker. He describes our understanding of sleep as "embarrassing" next to our understanding of our other basic drives (hunger, thirst, procreation). One thing we do know is that sleep deprivation causes the emotion-generating part of our brain, the amygdala, to over-activate, so the logic-spewing prefrontal cortex can't do its usual mediation of emotion. In other words, stronger emotional reactions, and less capacity to manage them. Think "irritable."

Now imagine that you're sleep-deprived, and so you sleep! Eight full, glorious hours. You dream. You wake up.

And you feel like you haven't slept at all. Day after day, night after night, morning after morning.

People talk to me, and I know they said something and I may even respond, but I often forget what it was a moment later, and my memory of the conversation is just that the two of us made some meaningless buzzing noises. During the good stretches, I can read light fiction. Doing anything technical is out of the question: last week was a complete loss at work, and seeing things on the downswing, I pre-emptively took this week off.

I lack the mental energy to follow superficial social scripts, so unfortunately most people who ask me how I am are now getting an honest answer, which is "Terrible."

Friday I started the insurance paperwork for a CPAP machine, so hopefully I get it this week, and hopefully it works, and hopefully it works quickly. will be up to some very confused doctors.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

asymptotic house progress

It's never over until the closing papers are signed, but we have mostly run out of things to go wrong. Our loan has been approved, and the sellers have agreed to lower the price a bit, so now it should just be a matter of filling out the paperwork.

And then. IT BEGINS. The madness. This is the list of things to do before move-in:
  • Kitchen remodel.
  • Refinish/repair wood floors.
  • Garage door.
  • Washer/dryer.
  • Dishwasher.

(Though, if you've ever remodeled a kitchen or refinished your floors, you'll know that it's far better to do it when you're not living there.)