Posts Tagged ‘family’

Wallowing in the gutters

November 15, 2011

I am not what you would call “handy.” I do have hands — two, I’m proud to say — but I use them primarily for eating, typing and pointing at ugly people, not for do-it-yourself jobs around the house. My idea of a home-improvement project is buying a big-screen TV or spraying a room with air freshener.

Somehow, I’ve still managed to be a homeowner for most of my adult life without having the structure collapse around me. I’ve accomplished this through a strategic combination of not caring when the small stuff breaks, and hiring a contractor to take care of the bigger repairs.

If the sliding glass door is permanently stuck or the lights don’t work above the vanity, I can adapt to the small inconvenience. The tile on the floor of our half-bath is warping from shower seepage that may eventually rot the flooring, but who can name the day I’ll slide nude and lathered into the crawlspace beneath our home? We might all be living under North Korean rule by the time, which would make a hole in my bathroom floor pale by comparison.

As long as the embarrassing demise of my residence is happening in private, I can look the other way. But when it is taking place outside in public view, there are certain covenants in our subdivision’s homeowners association agreement that require me to give a shit.

I’ve had to deal with two of these issues in recent weeks. First, a windstorm sheared a backyard hardwood in half, dropping about 25 feet of lumber into a stand of shrubs. We called a tree service to offer an estimate of what it would take to fix. In just a few minutes, the tree guy told us he could cut down the rest of the trunk and haul everything away for $350. He made it sound so simple that we hired him on the spot, and within a few days the tree was gone. Once again, we were in compliance with the provision that commercial logging of old-growth timber should be kept to a minimum in Brookshadow Acres.

While we were outside and looking up, we also noticed that the gutters meant to collect rainwater from our roof had become packed full of fallen autumn leaves. I could scale a ladder and waste a perfectly good Saturday afternoon digging decayed biomass out of the trough, or I could pay someone to do it. Much as I might enjoy the satisfaction of going elbow-deep into a 30-yard tube of acorns, mud and squirrel remains, I’d rather hire some poor bastard who does this for a living.

I noticed that our next-door neighbor recently had some gutter maintenance done on his home by a company called Guardian Gutters. I took down the phone number and set up an appointment for the next day to meet with a gutter professional.

Mike arrived promptly at 2 p.m. and barged into our sunroom with the breezy confidence of a well-polished salesman. He admired our decor, repeated my name frequently to show that he had remembered it, admired the decor again and remarked that — imagine the coincidence! — his wife was also named Beth. He had already launched into his carefully practiced sales pitch when I reminded him that the gutters were affixed to the exterior of the house, something you’d think a pro would know. I ushered him back outside, where I felt it’d be easier for me to run away if things got out of hand.

We stood shivering in a cold breeze as he began his presentation. The modern roof is the culmination of eons of trial-and-error by ancestors looking for the ideal way to shelter themselves from the elements, he said. Early dwellings were often covered only with twigs or animal hides, and did a poor job of protecting residents. The caves of the Neanderthal provided better protection, but since the collapse of the grotto bubble with the recession of 1 million B.C., these were generally outside the price range of most primitive families.

“If you look right up under here,” he directed, “you’ll see this long panel of wood stretching the length of your house. This is called the ‘eaves.’ Attached to the eaves is a strip that we call the ‘fascia,’ and it’s behind here that poor gutter work can lead to trouble.”

“And you can fix that?” I interrupted. “You can clean those things out for me?”

“Well, no,” he chuckled. “These gutters you currently have are going to require constant maintenance. We sell a far superior product called the Guardian Gutter, and we’re the only contractor in the area that offers this patented technology.”

While I had originally been interested only in having my gutter cleaned, I’d be open to the idea of getting a replacement that would free me from fascia-related worry. But I was getting cold, and he was getting nowhere near the bottom line of what his company’s work might cost me.

“If you notice that small bit of separation right there along the edge, you can see why the French aristocracy first used gutters in the early 18th century,” he continued. “Now, if we walk around to the front of the house…”

“Look,” I interrupted. “I’m kind of interested in wrapping this up pretty quickly. Is there any way you could hit just the high points for me in about 10 or 15 minutes?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I want to make sure you and your wife understand fully the value we offer with our product. We can finish this exterior inspection in probably 20 to 30 minutes, but then I’ll need another hour or so inside to lay out all the options we’re prepared to offer you.”

“Can you at least just tell me the price before we go any further?” I pressed.

“No, I can’t really do that without you knowing our features thoroughly,” he said. “If I told you right now that it would cost — say, $8,000 — you wouldn’t be able to appreciate all that your money would buy.”

Eight thousand dollars? I thought in italic. I’m not paying that kind of money to make sure rainwater is corralled down a drain spout unencumbered by putrefied leaves. I had obviously gotten in over my head, and needed to explain to this guy that I wasn’t prepared to make such a big investment, neither in thousands of dollars nor in hours of study about the history of modern roof drainage.

I would just have to explain that I misunderstood what his company offered, thank him for his time, and send him on his way.

“I’m sorry, we had an emergency visit to the hospital last night and I’m still a little distracted,” I lied. “My daughter was diagnosed with an immune-deficiency disorder, and I’m not going to be able to allow you in the house. Sorry.”

A salesman of this caliber, however, was not about to take “no” for an answer.

“Perhaps I could return at a more convenient time,” he offered. “While you’re thinking it over, let me show you this list of satisfied customers in the area. We have pages of names and phone numbers in here, and I would encourage you to call several of these folks to hear for yourself how they feel Guardian Gutters have made all the difference for them.”

“Okay, okay,” I relented. “Maybe we could have you back next week. Maybe Carla’s immunity will have returned by then, God willing.”

“Great,” he said, and dialed his home office to officially set up another appointment for 2 p.m. Monday.

Be sure to read tomorrow’s post, in which I describe how I call and cancel the appointment at the last minute.

My clogged gutter: A shame I may have to live with

An editorial: I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…

November 3, 2011

We should’ve turned right on Caldwell Street, not Graham.

We’d be better off having a new kitchen trash can with one of those swinging lids rather than no lid at all.

We should’ve sat at a table, not a booth.

A successful marriage requires a lot of compromise on both sides. Husbands have to accommodate wives who have thoroughly researched every subject before arriving at the exactly correct decision. Wives have to accommodate their inconsiderate, thoughtless, dunderheaded spouses who are rarely accurate in their judgments.

It’s a lot of work. We men may look like we blithely toss opinions around with little to back them up when, actually, it requires considerable effort to be an uninformed oaf. If you don’t know what’s right, how else can you hold on so tenaciously to the wrong idea?

I was reminded of the importance of these complementary roles on a recent weekend running errands and enjoying an evening out with my wife.

First, we headed for a distant bakery we’d visited once before but whose exact location we’d since forgotten. I know how contentious the subject of directions can be for most married couples, so I tried to head off any conflict by asking Beth to Mapquest the trip. As navigatrix, she’d read the map and issue directives on which way to turn the steering wheel, and I’d be the driver, doing only as I was told.

“But let’s use Yahoo maps instead,” Beth said before we left.

“Fine,” I answered. “Whatever you think is best.”

We drove about 25 miles north of town on a familiar interstate until we came to the exit we were to take. At the end of the ramp, we were to turn onto Caldwell Street. But there was no Caldwell Street. The only option was a one-way right onto Graham.

“This is supposed to be Caldwell,” Beth insisted. I agreed, but noted my only options for turning were onto Graham or into a drainage ditch.

We continued up Graham for several miles, hoping we might find Caldwell. As businesses thinned and farmland grew more common, we realized we were unlikely to find the urbane little French-themed coffeehouse this far out in the country.

I wanted to continue driving, at least until we hit the Canadian border, but Beth insisted we stop at a gas station to ask for directions. As long as she’d do the asking, and as long as I could hunch down and hide in the car, I agreed.

She went inside for a few moments, then returned to the parking lot with an older African-American man. I watched in my rearview mirror as he pointed this way then that, then signaled a clipping penalty, then waved both arms like he was landing fighter jets on a carrier.

Based on this, Beth said we needed to turn around, make a left at the first light, look for Tryon Street, make a right, and we’d find Amelie’s about two miles down.

You can probably already guess that this didn’t work. We spent another 25 minutes exploring north Charlotte and its many challenging byways. At last we found the bakery, but not before exchanging a series of accusations that finally ended with the agreement that I was stupid for getting us so lost.

After the bakery stop, we went to Target to buy a new trash receptacle for the kitchen. I admired a model that resembled what we currently had, except it wasn’t ripped down the side and caked with bits of ancient refuse. Beth said she’d prefer a similar style that included a lid with a swinging opening. Better to keep the smell in, she said.

“But I won’t be able to toss stuff in from across the room,” I complained. I am famous in our home as master of the three-pointer, tossing unwanted drinks and unfinished food into the bin from what would be near the half-court line if our living area were a basketball court.

“That’s right,” she said. “You won’t.”

So we bought the lidded can.

Finally, we headed back to our hometown for a quiet dinner at a new restaurant we’d heard good things about. It was still early, so the hostess urged us to sit wherever we liked. I liked a booth. Beth liked a table.

“We’ll be a lot more out of the way over in that corner,” I argued. “There’s still plenty of room to be comfortable.”

“I can’t see the front door from there,” Beth countered. “If we take the table, we can see the whole place.”

I’m constantly forgetting that, before I met her, Beth was one of the top capos in the East Coast Mob. Her work in loan-sharking, truck-hijacking and protection rackets went a long way toward paying her way through a master’s degree in English. After graduation, she was ready to leave a life of organized crime and settle down with me. But she retained the habit of self-preservation so ingrained in Underworld types. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t assassinated over the linguine.

So we sat at a table.

With these three incidents as object lessons, I hereby call on myself to be a better, more accommodating, more thoughtful husband than I’ve been in the past. I was wrong about the directions, I was wrong about the garbage can, and I was wrong about the restaurant seating. I need to do as I am told, remembering that I’m the not-so-proud descendant in a long line of barbarian males made civilized only through the tender guidance of a female life partner.

I call on myself to no longer doubt the word of the wife.

Hiding my defects from the brother-in-law

October 13, 2011

I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with a brother that I ended up so un-handy.

I’ve never mastered the husbandly skills that are the foundation of a well-maintained home. (Which reminds me: I need to have someone check a crack in our foundation). I spent more of my formative childhood years in pursuits of the mind than I did learning to become a Mr. Fix-It.

While other kids were learning how to bang stuff with hammers and poke the family Chevy with wrenches, I had no fraternal pressure to follow suit. I could stay indoors to master my typing skills, listen to music, and dream about the robots that would be handling basic home maintenance by the time I was an adult.

When I first became a homeowner after getting married, I barely had the skills to keep our three-bedroom brick ranch from collapsing around me. I knew how to change a light bulb. I knew how to mow the grass. I could paint the tiny tool shed in the backyard, as long as I took a week off from work to do it, and nobody minded that I used a coral semi-gloss intended for the bathroom.

Most importantly, I knew how to open a phone book to the yellow pages and find a professional who could handle the work for me. (Though, I’ll admit, it was pretty embarrassing to hire an electrician to show me how to open my fuse box).

So when my brother-in-law and his wife showed up at our home yesterday for an overnight visit, I should’ve regarded it as the next-best-thing to getting a brother. Instead, I felt threatened that someone had entered our premises who could challenge my limited dominion. What if he noticed that the bathroom sink had a drip? How could I face the humiliation?

Bob is a terrific guy. He’s been a caring husband to my wife’s sister for over 30 years, raising three children and building a comfortable life for his family in upstate New York. He’s a retired Air Force captain and, as once charged with the responsibility of keeping military aircraft from falling out of the sky because someone didn’t know how to tighten a screw, he’s pretty handy.

He’s so handy, in fact, that he spent most of his vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Charleston to help fix up her house. The stop at our place was happening at the tail end of this trip.

As I greeted them in the driveway, I hoped it was gloomy enough outside that they wouldn’t notice anything wrong with our exterior. I helped gather up their overnight bags and did my best to distract Bob from critically assessing the upkeep of our property. If I could just get them inside quickly enough, he wouldn’t have time to note how it appeared our walls were about to fall in.

Once inside, we exchanged the usual brother-in-law banter. First on the agenda, of course, was a review of his drive up from Charleston. He thought about taking U.S. 21 Bypass to get around some construction near Columbia, but ended up making better time staying on I-77. We also discussed the price of gas en route, and how the cruise control helped make his back less sore.

We stood around the kitchen for a good half-hour so they could stretch their legs after the four-hour drive, then adjourned to the living room. When we bled the topic of interstate driving completely dry, our attention turned to the television playing in front of us.

“So which one is your converter box?” Bob asked, gesturing toward the half-dozen devices beneath the set.

“Uh, I think it’s the one with the little red light,” I answered.

“Do you have a splitter?” he continued.

I have a decent fastball and a wicked slider for a 57-year-old, yet I no longer have the finger strength to put a splitter in the strike zone. But I don’t think that’s what he was asking.

“Yeah,” I answered lamely.

“Is it an HDMI?” Bob asked.

How am I supposed to know? I was hiding in the bathroom pretending to have a stomachache when my wife and son handled the entire installation.

“Sure is,” I responded. “Is there any other kind?”

Before Bob asked any other questions I’d be unable to answer, I decided to go on the offensive.

“We’re thinking about getting rid of cable anyway and going with a satellite dish,” I lied. “What’s your opinion on the advantages of cable versus a dish?”

I was hoping he’d launch into a discussion of DirecTV, which would bring us to the “NFL Sunday Ticket” package of football coverage, which would get me back to the manly topic of sports, a topic I had some familiarity with.

“Hmm,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of trees on your lot. Let’s go out on the deck and try to figure where the satellites would be positioned.”

Well, that certainly backfired. Now we were headed into the back yard, where it was still just barely light enough for him to observe what a mess we’d made of our homestead.

Bob took a few minutes to get a directional fix, then announced that issues like “azimuth” and “perigee” would likely prevent us from ever locking onto a communications satellite. Still looking skyward, he seemed to be pondering our chimney when I tried another distraction tack. I pointed at the house behind us that burned down a few months ago and still hadn’t been cleared away.

“I don’t know when they’re going to remove that debris,” I said, making the clear suggestion that even though I can barely unclog a toilet, at least I hadn’t set the entire premises ablaze.

He seemed to agree that this gave me some cred as a Man of the House. I noted that a kitchen grease fire had been responsible for the neighbor’s calamity, then coolly segued the topic to our wives being hungry for dinner. He offered to take us all out, and I jumped at the chance.

We had a pleasant enough meal, except perhaps for the parts where he talked about how he’d repaired our mother-in-law’s deck, installed new gutter guards, rebuilt her sidewalk and put in a new, taller toilet for her. I half-heartedly mentioned that our toilets were already about the right height.

He also said he had to spend an afternoon balancing her checkbook and paying her credit card bills online, and suddenly I felt a stirring of competence. Paperwork, being a sort of “pursuit of the mind,” was right in my wheelhouse. As bad as I am standing at the top of a ladder and evaluating a soffit, that’s how good I am working with words and numbers.

Repairing endangered credit and painting over subtraction errors with correction fluid — that I can handle. Building and maintaining good relations with out-of-town relatives — not a problem.

Just don’t ask me anything else about my splitter.

Bob "caulks up" another home improvement

We are DEFINITELY not hoarders

September 28, 2011

My wife asked me Sunday if I knew where the power cord to the portable DVD player was, and what followed was remarkable. I knew where it was!

“It’s in the top drawer of my dresser!” I exclaimed excitedly. “Right next to the underwear I never use! On top of the socks I can’t find matches for!”

The reason for my exhilaration had little to do with the fact that Beth wanted to watch the movie “Hanna” and I didn’t. (I have a longstanding policy against watching anything starring actors whose names contain three consecutive vowels, disqualifying “Hanna” star Saoirse Ronan). The reason I was so happy was that I actually knew where something in my house was.

Our home is, to put it kindly, cluttered. We’ve lived in the same house now for almost 18 years, and some of the stuff we stashed in corners when we first moved in is still there. In addition, there’s almost two decades worth of other stuff accumulated in the interim.

We have crates of record albums, boxes of cassette tapes, and shelves of CDs. We have an entire table devoted to Beth’s knitting projects and an old sewing machine cart where I collect my bank statements. On the bar are all our medicines and medical bills, most of our photos and a lava lamp.

In the corner next to the piano is all of my son’s schoolwork, 12 years of crafts projects and term papers that come to about chest-high. On top of the piano is our jigsaw puzzle collection. Inside the piano bench is sheet music and other paperwork.

And of course there’s the piano itself — unplayed since my son stopped taking lessons in 1998.

Both Beth and I come from ancestors who grew up during the Depression when possessions were few, and who came of age during the unprecedented materialism of the late twentieth century. They held onto everything, and taught their children to do the same.

My mother carpeted our entire house in Miami with sample squares she collected from a nearby rug store. We had a utility room we could barely open without toppling stacks of junk.

When I first met Beth’s parents before we were married, I was shown to their guest room upstairs. To get there, I walked past her father’s life-long compilation of mementoes from his career in the Air Force, and enough carved monkeywood statuettes from his overseas travels to deplete the Philippine rain forest.

And there were stacks and stacks of his National Geographics going back to the Fifties. (He had wisely put the lifetime subscription in Beth’s name since she was the youngest family member; now that legacy piles up on our coffee table).

So, if we ever need any item that occupies space in the physical universe, we probably have it. Finding it, though, is another matter.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a “system.” We turned to ancient Mesoamericans and their famous burial mounds for a model of how we would store a lifetime of belongings. Each of our mounds has a theme that allows us to retrieve approximately what we need, approximately when we need it.

The closet in our office, for example, contains the gift-wrap mound, the office supplies mound and the outdated computer equipment mound. We use very precise archaeological methods to locate what we’re looking for. Near the top of each pile are recent additions to the collection, with older exhibits closer to the bottom. At the base of the computer pile, for example, is an ancient Underwood typewriter, last used by the Incas.

I love our house but it was not built with a lot of good storage space. Aside from the closets, there’s only a crude attic where we’ve stashed Christmas decorations and the crawlspace that’s taken up with all my murder victims. We did buy an outdoor shed shortly after we moved in, primarily so I wouldn’t have to keep the lawnmower in the bathtub.

I think it’s important at this point to note that we are not pathological hoarders, like you might see on certain reality TV shows. We can and do throw stuff away frequently. Just this morning, before leaving for work, I threw a bunch of food scraps and used cat litter in the garbage bin outside.

We participate in our city’s recycling program, discarding old bottles and plastics and newspapers on a weekly basis. (I’d hoped for a long time that municipal officials would add human waste to the list of acceptable recyclables. When my calls to our councilman promoting this initiative failed, I stopped collecting my urine in Mason jars).

But we are not hoarders. We have all our teeth, we occasionally comb our hair, and we’re careful not to wear sleeveless t-shirts and muumuus when television cameras are around.

I keep telling myself that one of these days, I’m going to get everything organized and cataloged. I’ve already started on the pile of household records in our office, putting them in a file cabinet of tabbed folders reading “phone bills” and “vet” and “restraining orders.”

After I’ve retired, I plan to take this on as a full-time job. I’ll go through the various mounds of junk and apply radio-frequency identification tags to every item. This mix of high-tech and low-tech solutions will then allow me to wave a scanner over each of the mounds and be able to tell exactly what’s in there and where.

Who knows what bounty I’ll discover when I go through this effort? Maybe we’ve got the Holy Grail in there somewhere. Perhaps I’ll stumble across a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or maybe that ultra-rare Ty Cobb baseball card, or — who knows? — the Great Emancipator’s rookie card from when he was a young catcher with the Cubs.

Maybe I’ll even find the DVD player that goes with the power cord I found Sunday.

NOT my home office (mine is much worse)

‘Clumsy’ doesn’t begin to explain my problem

September 19, 2011

I’ve always held a deep-seated belief that fluids should be allowed to flow unencumbered.

As a political philosophy, it’s not much. But as someone who looks at the physical world and sees free-running rivers and churning oceans and new improved ketchup dispensers, I literally ache when I think of how water and other liquids that have been constrained by Man.

I guess that explains why I go to such great lengths to liberate fluids whenever I can. It’s also a great excuse for why I find myself constantly spilling stuff.

I don’t consider myself a clumsy person. I think I move rather lithely through life, knocking over remarkably little for such a big and aging guy. I once spent an entire afternoon in a china shop, destroying only small amounts of merchandise until I was asked to leave for trying to place a to-go order for moo goo gai pan.

Were I, however, subjected to a battery of genetic tests, I’m pretty sure results would show that I possess the so-called “lummox gene” deep within my DNA. I come from a long line of awkward men, as was demonstrated on an annual basis when one particular uncle would come to Thanksgiving dinner and inevitably drop the green beans to the floor. It’s a family tradition that we tend to spill things.

So yesterday’s disaster in my home shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

After meeting an old friend for brunch, I stopped at a Smoothie King to pick up a treat for my wife and son. My son wanted the chocolate-and-peanut-butter-and-banana concoction while my wife opted for the “Chocolate Shredder.” I carried both smoothies successfully to my car, and drove them 20 miles to my home without incident.

When I pulled into the driveway and began to gather up my things, I decided to carry both styrofoam cups on the iPad I had taken to Panera with me. I’ve seen professional wait staff do this balancing act a thousand times while bringing drinks to their customers, and it seemed like a good way to free my other hand to carry the newspaper and fumble with my keys. The iPad can perform thousands of functions; using one as a tray doesn’t even require paying for an app.

I made it through the side exterior door okay but when I tried to open the sunroom doors into the living room, both cups began to totter. I lunged in panic to steady them, which only made things worse, and the sticky-sweet drinks toppled onto the carpet.

“FFFFFUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” I observed as chocolate plasma splashed about my feet. “Damn it!”

What a royal mess the Smoothie King had delivered! I stumbled over to the kitchen counter to unload my other things, tracking the gummy goo on my shoes and onto the tile floor. Chocolate smoothie was everywhere — splashed onto the side of an adjacent bookcase, under the bottom edge of the door and soaking deep into the rug. My anguished cries brought my wife running.

“I’m such a clumsy idiot,” I told her in a pre-emptive move I hoped would quell any criticism she might be tempted to add. Gracefully, she offered only sympathy and help.

What had been looking like a quiet Sunday afternoon spent in front of televised football was now transformed into a marathon clean-up. For hours, we scrubbed and soaped the entire affected area, and by evening we had eliminated almost all of the visible smoothie. The parts that soaked through the floorboard into the crawlspace beneath our home would add a nice chocolaty flavor to the soup that had accumulated there from my other recent spills.

There was the evening just last week when I knocked a full glass of Pepsi onto its side next to the couch. Since my son keeps his beloved MacBook on the coffee table, I have to keep my drinks on a tray on the floor. (For some reason, he’s afraid I’ll spill something on the computer). Two of our cats had a case of “the rips” and were rocketing around the living room, so I reached down to protect the glass. In the process, I knocked it over myself.

Then there was the time I tried to apply marinade to a sandwich I was packing for my lunch. Functioning on too little sleep, I had imagined the sweet orange condiment would make a nice substitute for mayonnaise on my turkey sandwich. I loosened the lid, stepped away briefly to grab a newspaper, then returned to pick up the jar and give it a vigorous shake to blend the ingredients. Marinade flew about the room. I cleaned up the best I could at that ungodly hour. Still, later that morning, my wife had to wonder how a strip of candied orange peel had fallen from the ceiling into her breakfast.

There was also the time I tried to “flash-cool” a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew by putting it in our spare freezer. By the time I remembered to retrieve it a few days later, the bottle had expanded, then structurally failed, then exploded. Two frozen chickens and a pound of ground beef were mortally wounded.

And this doesn’t even count the incident at work about a month ago, where I spilled a fresh cup of coffee all over my desk and keyboard. I was answering a question from one of my proofreading trainees, and made a sweeping gesture to indicate the grand scope of errors we had to catch and correct. It made for a terrible mess, but also served as an effective display of how the unpredictable could go wrong.

After yesterday’s smoothie incident, I’d like to say I’m re-dedicating myself to grace and finesse, but I’m not sure it would do any good. I’m not trying — consciously, at least — to broadcast liquids to the four winds. But I don’t think any effort on my part is going to reverse the desire for entropy that runs through my family history at a molecular level.

Even though gene replacement therapy is not covered by my current health insurance plan, I think there might be help for me available from the medical community.

Either I can start taking all my fluids intravenously. Or, I can get me one of those cone-shaped collars that dogs and cats wear to keep them from gnawing at their stitches. If they seal tightly enough around your neck, you could just pour the drinks over your head, wait for the level to rise enough to reach your mouth, then enjoy hands-free beverage consumption without the possibility of making a ruinous mess.

Then, all I have to do is find a shampoo that claims to clean smoothie out of your hair.

Or, as the case may be, your fur.

Afterword: I dedicate today’s post to my Uncle Jack, who died over the weekend at age 86. He was the only local relative beyond my immediate family while I grew up in Miami, and came to be a favorite of my sister and me. Every holiday and every Sunday, Uncle Jack would take a city bus from his home downtown to visit us out in the suburbs. Inevitably, he’d bring us each a cash gift. We would’ve loved him anyway.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Jack.

My deepest sympathies on your loss, delivered via new media

August 17, 2011

After five people were killed in a freak accident at the Indiana State Fair Saturday, condolences came pouring in from around the nation. First among these was a message from Sugarland, the country music act whose stage it was that fell on dozens of fans.

“We are all right,” band members tweeted somewhat self-centeredly. “We are praying for our fans and the people of Indianapolis. We hope you’ll join us.”

Other show business figures were quick to join in acknowledgement of the disaster, as long as they could do it via the convenience of Twitter.

Kelly Clarkson tweeted “oh my gosh that is maybe one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.” Singer Michelle Branch said “just heard about Sugarland and the stage collapse in Indy.” Ryan Seacrest added “saw the vid of the stage collapse in Indiana … unbelievable.”

While these messages may be lacking in empathy for the victims — containing instead personal impressions upon hearing the news — they can’t be faulted for the speed with which they were delivered. Twitter has made it possible for us to be remorseful at the click of a button.

I don’t know much about Sugarland, other than the fact that they’re not the same as Lady Antebellum, which I had previously believed. But if someone as backward as country musicians can use social media to convey their regrets, I guess all of us can now enjoy the ease of modern communications to express our grief at a time of loss.

This is great news to me, as someone who always felt awkward hobnobbing with survivors. I am lucky not to have known many dead people in my life. I’ve attended only a handful of funerals in my 57 years, and therefore never quite developed the knack for conveying sympathy, much less genuinely feeling it.

As a child, the only funeral I remember attending is that of Uncle Buck, my grandfather’s brother. He passed when I was about 13. My only recollection of the memorials that followed was how appalled I was at the concept of a “viewing,” our visit to the funeral home to look and point at the lifeless body.

People in attendance seemed to be having a wonderful time, munching on snacks, laughing, seeing still-alive friends and relatives, and working into conversations as much as possible what a good guy Uncle Buck had been.

“This cheese dip is really good,” I think I recall a cousin saying. “And you know what else was good? Uncle Buck.”

I doubt I offered much comfort to the widow, Aunt Ethel. As a teenager, I didn’t really know what to say, and have long suspected that my “hey, how’s it going?” did little to soothe her raw emotions.

It’s a shame that my late uncle didn’t die in 2011, and not just because he would be world-famous for having lived to the ripe old age of 140. Here in the twenty-first century, we use high-tech communications to offer sincere-if-electronic condolences.

And it’s not just Twitter that allows us to instant-message our deepest regrets as long as they don’t exceed 140 characters. Now, you can even sign a virtual guest book and thereby avoid setting foot in those houses of death known as mortuaries.

Most local newspapers now offer a link from their obits page to a site that will record your thoughts. In days past, guest books made for wonderful keepsakes that families could take home after the funeral and peruse for comfort in the coming days of agony and despair. The electronic version is presumably just as soothing, assuming you know how to use the “print screen” feature on your computer keyboard and don’t use the back of recycled spreadsheets to print your hard copy.

And don’t worry if you can’t come up with just the right words. Instead of going to all the trouble involved in typing your own message, you can click on one of 47 “suggested entries” to locate exactly the right sentiment you’d come up with yourself if you weren’t such heartless, vocabulary-challenged soul.

Some examples:

“May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow” (or, for agnostics, perhaps something like “may the dark void of eternal nothingness somehow manage to bring you comfort”)

“As the days and weeks pass, and as you return to life’s routine, may you continue to feel comforted by the love and support of family and friends” (or, the more-practical “hope you get a good insurance settlement”)

“Take comfort in knowing that now you have a special guardian angel to watch over you” (and the implied “hope you’re not afraid of ghosts”)

“Grief can be so hard, but our special memories help us cope” (or “might I offer an Ambien? — it’s a great amnesiac”)

You can even offer a poem or song as long, as the small print warns, you don’t use copyrighted material. So Longfellow’s “Nature” with its “So nature deals with us/And takes us away” refrain would be okay, while Lady Gaga’s “Disco Heaven” and its lyrics “Oh Disco Heaven/Get back Bunny!/It’s getting cold in here little honey” would be inappropriate.

There’s even a place that suggests what not to say, complete with testimonials from people who’ve had to endure the heartfelt but misstated wishes of certain block-headed relatives.

“I went to my ex-boyfriend’s funeral. We had broken up but kept in touch,” wrote Susan. “A neighbor asked me if his wife was pretty.”

“I am an only child, and I lost my mom in 2001 and my dad in 2004,” recalled Victoria. “A relative said to me, ‘So you’re all alone now, right? What a shame.’ ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

“My aunt told me at my husband’s funeral that I am young and will find someone else,” wrote Sandra. “Holy crap! I could’ve slapped her.”

Besides Twitter and online condolences, there are other modern choices for sending your sympathies winging through the ether.

Facebook is popular with some. Loving survivors can create a “death page” that mourners can “like” as a way of showing respect. I imagine there are also some Skype, LinkedIn and Groupon applications, though I don’t know how appropriate it is to offer coupons toward discounts on Last Rites. You could even use my personal favorite — Words With Friends — to send one-word Scrabble-like messages such as “SORRY,” “SAD” or “REGRETS” (bonus points for using all seven letters, not counting possible triple-word-play!)

I would assume simple texting is also acceptable. This might be another choice for those who have difficulty coming up with the right words, and prefer instead to send memorial emoticons, like:

😥 — crying, with an apostrophic tear

>:o — surprise or shock

D:< — horror or sadness, with a giant “D” pasted to your forehead

<°))>< — a fish, as in “he sleeps with the fishes”

Whatever media you choose, the benefits of not having to deliver your message of remorse in person are a welcome part of our new Digital Age.

And I look forward to the day when the showing-up-at-the-funeral part can become as optional as our communications. Imagine how impressed the deceased will be in that not-too-distant day in the future when you send either your own personal robot, or a hologram of yourself wailing inconsolably.

Talk about heaven.


A visit from the mother-in-law

August 1, 2011

The phone call that came Thursday afternoon announced every husband’s worst nightmare.

No, it wasn’t an alert that the Earth was about to be crushed by a giant radioactive asteroid but first, here’s a new episodes of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Instead, it was my mother-in-law, telling us that she was going to visit on Saturday.

It’s a cliche that mothers-in-law are the eternal bane of husbands. That doesn’t make it any less true.

My own personal mother-in-law is a kindly lady in her eighties. Widowed for almost 20 years now, she lives on her own in rural Charleston County, getting by on the kindness of friends and the occasional visit from one of her two daughters. She’s always been very nice to me — when she can track me down — though I can’t say the same about how she treats my wife.

Beth has to endure constant pleas from her mother to give up her sinful ways of living and find Jesus. And not just any Jesus, mind you. This is the Jesus that has revealed himself only to the small storefront church operating next to a Ravenell Domino’s, established after it split with other members over some obscure issue of doctrine, like the inerrancy of the Bible or maybe it was too much meat loaf at the potluck suppers.

In any case, of all the thousands of religions in the world, this small group of evangelical Christians are the only ones who have got it right. Everybody else is going to Hell.

This kind of perfunctory condemnation from one’s own parent can be a bit unnerving. Beth has developed several defenses against these proselytizing  phone calls, the most effective of which is to dangle the phone down her back and call out the occasional “yeah” or “uh-huh” over her shoulder to make it sound like she’s listening.

The other fundamental tenet of my mother-in-law’s belief system is that she needs to unload a lifetime’s worth of possessions on her children. Unfortunately, we’re not talking here about the savings bonds and T-bills and real estate she and her late husband accumulated during 50 years of frugality. (These have gone mostly to the greater glory of God, in the form of rent on the former Blockbuster’s that is home to her church). Instead, we’re talking about old furniture and knick-knacks.

The purpose of Saturday’s visit was to deliver a possibly-antique-but-more-likely-just-decrepit bookcase and a Sleep Number bed.

So when I got a phone call from the office Friday evening recruiting volunteers for an emergency work session the next day, I was more than happy to say “count me in!” No frenetic drafting session could ever be as unpleasant as being told I’m carrying the burden of a lifetime of sins and ultimately burning in Hell, while hauling a 70-pound bookcase through a 110-degree heat index.

My son, like a hostage with a cellphone, kept me posted on how the visit was going with furtive texts sent out during the day.

10:17 a.m. — SHE’S HERE

12:37 p.m. — SHE’S STILL HERE



3:17 p.m. — SHE’S GONE!!

With the all-clear given, I was ready to head home and face the mound of discarded possessions that likely accompanied the bookcase and bed. These visits never end with the few items we were promised. There’s always a little something extra thrown in — National Geographics from the Nixon era, photographs of long-dead pets, a monkeywood carving of monkeys that Beth’s late father brought from the Philippines in 1948.

Initial indications were positive as I rolled into the driveway (I was able to roll into the driveway without crashing into a collection of avocado ottomans). I could see through the sunroom window that the hulking bookcase had been delivered. Walkways in the living room were still clear, or at least clear enough to allow the “Hoarders” camera crew enough room to operate, should they want to film a special about us.

Beth and I chatted about how the visit went as I scanned the room, looking for any new junk that appeared since I left that morning. They’d actually had a relatively pleasant time together, going out to brunch before settling in for an afternoon of reminiscence, health updates and bizarre interpretations of the metaphysical world. It looked like we had indeed escaped being used as the Greatest Generation’s dumping ground.

“Let’s go look at the Sleep Number bed,” Beth said.

In my son’s room sat what looked like the kind of bedroll you might see at a camping site. From what I know of the Sleep Number bed, it’s a pretty sophisticated system. Through a collection of electronic controls, you’re supposed to be able to adjust the firmness of the mattress to your desired sleep number. Those who want to doze on a slab of granite select 100; those who prefer a waterbed filled with pudding select zero.

We pulled the bed out of its container and read the label. It was the Coleman 202869 air mattress.

“Oh, no,” said my wife. “We don’t need one of these.”

“Do you think because it had ‘202869’ on it that she thought it was a Sleep Number?” I asked.

“I bet she did,” said Beth.

“And what’s this?” I asked about a serving tray that lay next to the bed.

“Oh, it’s really nice,” Beth said. “It’s something my father brought back from Rio de Janiero when his Air Force group was stationed there.”

The tray had a colorful inlay featuring a placid beach scene under a set of strangely iridescent clouds.

“I loved this when I was growing up,” Beth said. “Guess what the clouds are made of.”

I guessed seashells but I was wrong.

“No, they’re butterfly wings,” Beth said.

“Butterfly wings?” asked my son. “Isn’t that a little barbaric?”

“At least we didn’t get the lampshade made of human skin,” I cracked.

“Did they kill the butterflies just to get their wings?” asked Daniel.

I imagined they did, but instead concocted a story about how the artist must’ve waited patiently for the beautiful insects to go belly-up, then rapidly harvest their wings in the few moments before they’d turn brown in the hot South American sun. Instead, they now were forever fresh under a layer of protective sealant, eager to edify humanity one last time by letting me put a glass of Pepsi on them.

All in all, I had survived the mother-in-law visit quite well. I didn’t have to see her, talk to her, or acknowledge her presence in any way. I didn’t have to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, just to get a bookcase. And I didn’t end up with a lifetime full of detritus being passed off as some priceless legacy.

Thank you, Val, for showing us mercy. If only the same could be said of that Vengeful God of yours hanging out next to Domino’s.

Revisited: You can lead a cat to water…

July 31, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my responsibility to keep our three indoor cats fed. Today, I’m writing about how we keep them watered.

Obviously, I’m running out of topics.     

While watering cats might sound like a fun gardening game, it’s actually quite the real-life challenge to many pet owners. With no lips to speak of and a chronic inability to use a straw, cats rely instead on little nodules built into their tongues to capture drinking water. It’s an inefficient method that requires a prolonged lapping motion to access the same amount of liquid we humans can get in a single gulp.     

You try drinking with just your tongue nodules. It’s not easy.     

So, many cat owners face the unsettling site of their kitty standing front paws in the kitchen sink, back sides high in the air, tonguing desperately at the few drips falling out of the faucet. Conveniently forgetting that they’ve been domesticated for about 5,000 years, they’ve reverted to past primitive lives lived outdoors, where fresh-running streams provided a better-tasting source of refreshment than did stagnant pools of rainwater. They might have a dish full of liquid in the laundry room, crammed between their litter box and the noisy washing machine, but they recognize the superior ambience of the sink and do their drinking there.     

I know cats are supposed to be immaculately clean creatures, famous for spending days at a time doing nothing more than bathing themselves. Still, I’m not comfortable with their mouths slobbering all over the same spigot I use to get my water. And I know the company we’re having over for dinner is similarly uncomfortable.     

I’ve heard from friends about so-called drinking fountains for cats, so we decided to check them out. We went to the local PetSmart store to see about buying one.     

PetSmart is a wonderful pet supply franchise with locations throughout the country. It’s a big warehouse-style establishment whose most distinctive feature is that it allows customers to bring animals shopping with them. You’d have to be blind to get away with this in Sears — just as you probably have to be blind to even set foot inside a Sears — but at PetSmart all of God’s creatures are welcome, as long as they’re accompanied by a human with a credit card.     

My wife, son and I entered the store on a recent Saturday to be greeted by a live pig. (“What is this, Walmart?” my son joked). It was one of those fancy domesticated pigs owned by people so enlightened and so unique that not just any pet is good enough for them, it has to be both smarter than a dog and offer more bacon than a parakeet. Other customers gathered excitedly around the bow-bedecked swine to pet and admire him. Their dogs stood close by, drooling expectantly and wondering when the pig-pickin’ would start.     

Large signs hanging from the ceiling directed customers to individual pet categories — dogs, cats, birds, fish, etc. We headed toward the cat department, stepping around all kinds of canines at virtually every turn. Though PetSmart claims all pets are welcome, there was not a visiting cat to be seen anywhere. I’d be tempted to organize a sit-in to protest this discrimination if the store had a lunch counter and you could get cats to sit still at it. We swallowed hard to look past the blatant pro-dog, anti-cat bias, and found our way to the aisle containing what you’d normally call “tableware” (dishes, bowls, placemats, etc.) except that these would be placed on a floor in the utility room.     

There were several models of drinking fountain in three different price ranges. We read about the features of each, not really sure what was a plus and what was a minus. We’d hoped to find one that was battery-powered but all of them used electric cords. Some had reusable filters, some had visible water reservoirs, some allowed you to grow grass on the lid. We settled on the mid-range model because it promised “no assembly required” and took it home to what we anticipated would be an eager reception from Harriet, Taylor and Tom.

Well, it’s now almost three weeks later, and the Drinkwell Platinum fountain has received mixed reviews at best from its end-users. None of them had the slightest idea what the contraption was when we first set it up, so we proceeded with a makeshift training program designed to explain how fresh, flowing water would both taste good and improve their urinary tract function. Taylor, generally regarded as the brightest of the three, eventually caught on when we held his snoot near the stream and made a splashing sound with our fingers. He drinks from the fountain now about half the time. Harriet, far older and more set in her ways, never did much sink-drinking to begin with and continues to get her liquids however she’s managed all along (probably from the toilet). 

Tom is our feisty tabby, the cat most recently brought into domestication from the wild outdoors and, as by far the largest of the trio, the most intrusive in the sink. We gave him a demo similar to what Taylor received, but he didn’t seem to catch on. We gently pressed his face toward the small pond, trying to wet his lips without wetting his nose, which is no easy feat if you’ve ever studied the anatomy of the typical cat face. It could’ve been a small nuclear reactor as far as Tom was concerned — all he knew was that it made a slight hum and it was something we actually wanted him to use, so he wanted no part of it. 

I tried some more basic, remedial training. Maybe he’d get the idea by looking at the picture on the box. 

“See, Tom, here’s a cat, and here’s his tongue dipping into the water,” I pointed out. 

Tom said nothing. 

“Look, Tom, it’s a picture of the fountain just like we have in the other room, and this cat is drinking fresh, delicious water from it,” I continued. 

Still no response. 

“And if you’ll look closely at the price sticker on top of the box, you’ll see that we spent $79.99 on this device, and that’s not counting sales tax,” I persevered. 

Tom seemed temporarily intrigued, but all he really wanted to do was bite my pointing finger. Which he did. 

A thirsty and confused kitty

So we’re not sure we’re going to keep the drinking fountain after all. PetSmart promised a money-back guarantee on the purchase, and if there’s no improved participation from our cats by the weekend, we’ll probably be taking it back. Tom still prefers to get his water from the dripping faucet in the kitchen sink, and as long as he and the others are well-hydrated, I guess we’re going to have to accept that. 

But I’ll bet you anything that pig would know what to do.

Out with the combover, in with the summer ‘do

July 25, 2011

The combover haircut I never asked for but got anyway (see was taking over my life.

My daily jog had become an exercise in awkwardness. I could pump my left arm as usual to help me power up the hills but the right hand had to hold my hair in place. While shampooing, I dealt with this big ungainly clump on one side that felt like something fished out of the drain trap.

It felt like the long sheaf of hair my previous stylist thought I’d use as a blanket to cover my bald spot had gone to seed. Maybe that would explain the patches of new hair growth I was seeing in my ears and nostrils.

So I spent my lunch break from work Friday back in the barber’s chair. This time, I wanted a true summer cut. Not the fully shaven look that’s become so common, what my son used to call “bald hair” when he was a child. Not the short stubble we named a “crew cut” back when The Three Stooges’ “Curly” was rocking the style.

It had to be long enough that I could still comb it and part it, but no longer. I wanted something that was easy maintenance, perfect — as the women’s magazines might point out — for that “casual, on-the-go, wash-and-wear look busy gals everywhere are turning to.”

I tried to explain my dream-cut to my Great Clips barber. Arturo, the forty-something Cuban-American I had worked with once before, didn’t seem to get what I was going for. He appeared confused and disoriented as I fingered the offending strands and laid out my plan for getting rid of them.

Just don’t give me what you’ve got, I wanted to say. He sported the oiled pompadour so popular in Miami’s exile community, a squared-off ‘do favored by many Cuban men that my childhood friends had called “The Cubic.”

“Just make it short all over, but not too short,” I finally suggested.

When I noticed perspiration starting to collect on his brow and upper lip, I finally realized his bewilderment might be due more to early signs of heat exhaustion than to my poor description. It was a little toasty in the salon, and when I saw that the back door was open and several fans were rotating nearby, I realized the air conditioning was out. On one of the hottest days of the summer.

I thought about up and leaving, especially when he draped the black plastic tarp over me to begin his work.

“Yeah, it was so bad last night, we had to close early,” another stylist was telling her client. “The sweat was getting in my eyes and burning. I was dripping on the customers.”

Arturo was a more quiet type than Amanda, and he began a slow, deliberate clipping that looked like it might take till the first cold snap of fall to finish. I told myself to be patient, that this short-term discomfort would soon be over and my scalp would be properly shorn.

I felt like someone sitting in one of those old-fashioned portable steam rooms, the kind you see in old movies where only the person’s head is sticking out of a box while their torso tosses off excessive water weight. Only I was even more uncomfortable, what with the prickly hairs sneaking down my neck and Arturo’s labored breathing in my ear.

I thought about making conversation to better pass the increasingly distressing time. On the last visit, I remember him mentioning that he was indeed from Miami, where I had lived until leaving for college in 1971.

“Your countrymen pretty much took over my home town,” I could say. “The Miami I knew before Castro came along was a nice, safe place to live. Sure, you gave us Gloria Estefan and 50 years of myopic foreign policy toward the island. But it would’ve been nice to have left at least a few English-speaking pockets in the county.”

Instead, I kept my mouth shut, and counted every snip-snip as another sign of progress that I’d be freed soon. (Much like the Cubans counted every head cold Fidel came down with since 1961 as a signal they’d soon be returning to their freed homeland).

Such was not the case, however, with the new client who had just been seated across the aisle from me. His name was Martin, and he couldn’t have been more than three years old. His mom accompanied him into Amanda’s chair, which I at first thought was a loving show of support but soon turned into a mechanism of constraint as the kid screamed his lungs out.

Now, despite my curmudgeonly outlook on life, I’m actually a big fan of kids. It’s one of the few things in life that cause me to break out in a big smile, right up there with nitrous oxide and the laughable politics of the current GOP presidential candidates. I believe that children are not only our future; I believe they are also our past and present.

The screaming continued unabated, raising the stress level in the room to almost unbearable heights. In normal situations, when you encounter a misbehaving child in public — hollering in a restaurant, scooting through your legs at Target, appearing on “America’s Got Talent” in a performance of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” — you can look daggers at the parents and get some satisfaction.

But a child’s first haircut is seen as a sentimental right of passage. You have to chuckle at how the blond baby locks cascade to the floor as a girlish toddler is transformed into a little boy. Seriously, you have to; it’s an unwritten law of modern society.

So Arturo and Amanda smiled through clenched teeth, Amanda offering the obvious observation that “I don’t think he likes me.” A collection of customers in the waiting area sweated and fidgeted, while simultaneously grinning at Martin’s antics. Even the AC repairman, working quietly in the back, resisted the temptation to throw a heavy wrench at the bawling youngster.

“I HATE YOU!” the little boy bellowed. “GET ME OUTTA HERE! WAHH! WAHH!”

Fortunately, Martin was getting a buzzcut, and almost before he could say “I WISH YOU WERE DEAD!! AHH!! AHH!!”, he was tumbling out of the chair, his mom all apologetic and the rest of us grinning our insincere smiles.

Back on my own personal head, Arturo finished up a few details. He did my brow work, he shaved the back of my neck, he proudly held up the mirror that displayed how expertly he had evened the hairline in places I’d never see.

“Looks good,” I said, though I would’ve accepted anything short of a mohawk at that point to escape the raucous, sultry hell that Great Clips #426 had become.

Power outage HAS to be reported

July 20, 2011

Last week’s thunderous downpour caught me driving down a rain-swollen highway near my home. I’ve seen bad storms before — monsoons in India, hurricanes in Miami, flooding so bad in Manila that other Philippine dangers like volcanoes, Islamist insurgencies and being mowed down by a colorful Jeepney seemed almost welcome. But this was rain beyond anything I had previously experienced.

I got about halfway between my home and destination when that familiar advice from the Weather Channel came into my head.

“Turn around, don’t drown,” they say of encounters with flash flooding. “Stay tuned for your ‘Local on the 8’s.'”

I wasn’t about to actually turn around, as I had just barely made it out of a dip in the road that was fast becoming a lake. Instead, I pulled into the parking lot at Starbucks to wait out the worst of the Venti-sized deluge. (Fortunately, and perhaps accidentally, they didn’t charge me for this.)

Soon the rain let up enough for me to finish my errands and get my sodden butt home. Walking in the door, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that the power had gone out.

My wife Beth was just hanging up the phone.

“I called the utility department to report it and all I’m getting is a busy signal,” she said. “I don’t want to be late for work. Can you keep trying to get through?”

“Sure,” I lied.

Beth and I generally have an honest relationship, except when it comes to reporting power outages. She believes officials at the power company need to have their noses rubbed in it when our usually reliable source of electricity has gone down. I happen to believe that, if they don’t already know about the issue from the dozens of other people calling in (hence the busy signal), they’ll find out quickly enough without hearing it from me.

I feel bad enough already for the lowly government worker. Revenue cuts and the economy have ruined their sense of job security. Conservative pedagogues characterize them as lazy, hide-bound bureaucrats. Many of them spend their workdays becoming more familiar with noxious effluents — sewerage, trash, muddy stormwater, proclamations from the mayor — than anybody would want to be.

Surely they don’t want to hear my voice being the 99th caller to point out that “hey, you know that violent supercell that just blew through the area? It knocked out my power, and now I can’t watch reruns of ‘Two and a Half Men.’ You gonna fix it or what? How soon? And Charlie Sheen’s lady friend in that episode — did they end up getting married?”

I’ve already asked a lot of our municipal workers recently. The garbage bin we use to roll our household trash down to the curb each Thursday morning had its lid broken in two, so they had to bring out a replacement. Then there was the fire at our next-door neighbor’s house a few months back that city firefighters were kind enough to extinguish before it consumed our entire neighborhood.

So rather than wait 20 minutes for someone to finally answer the phone, then report something as obvious as the way lightning interacts poorly with power lines, I preferred to sit in the growing dimness and wait. I used my portable booklight to read. My son used the iPad. Our three cats conveniently interpreted the sudden dark as meaning it was time for dinner, and gathered around to stare at me.

Beth called from work and asked if I’d had any luck getting through to the utility company.

“No, not yet,” I said. It was technically the truth — it’s hard to get through when you don’t even try.

Another 45 minutes or so passed (or maybe it was three days — it’s hard to tell when all the clocks go blank) and I started to get weary of the gloom. Plus, it was getting hot. Plus, I was getting hungry and my wife had made it clear that no admission to the refrigerator was permitted during the outage.

It had now been at least two hours since the lights first flickered, and I was running out of diversions to keep me occupied. What the heck? I figured at last. I might as well give the city a call.

This time, the phone on the other end of the line rang only about a dozen times before it was picked up. An automated voice told me my “service problem” had been automatically recorded, and that activities were underway to address it.

I had my doubts about that, but at least I had made the effort. Now, if in fact our home had been the only one in this city of 65,000 to be knocked off the grid, it was officially noted in the public record.

And then something amazing happened. The lights came on. As did the TV, and the dishwasher, and the air conditioner. I had reached out to my local public servants with a reasonable request, and the request had been answered.

“Power back on,” I texted Beth triumphantly. “Called mayor personally to demand it.”

“Hah,” came the response.

It’s not exactly like I had somehow prevailed in that classic “you-can’t-fight-city-hall” scenario. What I did wasn’t exactly a “fight”; it was more like a polite request, given to a high-tech answering machine. But it felt good to know that it was still possible to live under a responsive government that actually did the stuff you asked it to.

And it felt good to have the AC back on, it felt good not to have to read any more, and it felt good to turn on the Weather Channel.