Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Holidays

You know, once upon a time it was considered polite not to assume that everyone you spoke to shared the same beliefs as you. Nowadays, if you try that, you're part of a "war on Christmas." So sad.

Bellicose or not, I will continue to be old-fashioned enough to wish that, should you be so inclined, you have a happy Hannukah, or a pleasant Ramadan, a super Solstice, a joyous Kwanzaa, or, yes, even a merry Christmas. And, any which way, a very happy New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chapter 8 (concluded)

They spent the afternoon roaming the woods of Rock Creek Park and its environs.  They passed the occasional hiker or biker, depending on which paths they took, but often they were alone amongst the trees.  It was a bit cooler here out of the sun, but very peaceful.  At first Johnny had been a bit nervous, being away from the hustle and bustle of the city—this was more alone than he strictly wanted to be at the moment—but he had to admit that it was pleasant.  This wasn’t a creepy, Hansel and Gretel sort of forest.  It was more like when Amiira used to take him to Great Falls Park, just over the state line in Virginia.  They had gone several times, without his parents of course, and he still had fond memories of it despite how young he had been at the time.  It was like exploring their very own wilderness, away from the crowds of the suburbs.  Still, as the day grew longer, he felt the vague nervousness returning.  There was a sense of isolation, and a feeling of being watched.

Finally Johnny suggested that they head back into the city.  Larissa studied him for a moment, then shrugged and struck off in a new direction through the trees.  Johnny didn’t question that she knew where she was going.  Larissa always knew.

They cut through the cemetery and came out onto the trail very close to where they’d first joined it, earlier that morning.  This time they kept moving south, under Q Street, then under P Street.  The trees were getting thinner and the city traffic was becoming clearer and louder off to their right.  Twenty or thirty minutes later, Johnny was just starting to remark to himself that he’d never been this far south on the Georgetown side of The Creek, when a baseball diamond suddenly appeared to their right.

“Hunh,” Johnny said aloud.  “Where the heck are we?”

“Rose Park,” Larissa replied.  She stayed on the trail until just past the field, then cut off the path and headed to a small children’s playground.  There were a couple of picnic tables on the outskirts, and Larissa picked one and sat down at it.  On the far side of Georgetown, the sun was sinking, and the play area was deserted.  Must be a weeknight, Johnny thought.

And so they had a quiet little picnic with booty from Sandra’s café: cold sandwiches, and cheese, and fruit, and some sort of cream cheese and mushroom puffs, and little dark chocolate cupcakes with pink cherry frosting.  As the sunlight faded, Johnny felt full.  This was an unusual feeling for him.  Johnny had been full only a few times since he’d come to live on the streets, mostly coinciding with his stints in foster care.  He leaned back and savored the feeling.

Larissa was looking towards the street, which Johnny figured was probably 26th or 27th or something like that.  Something in her gaze brought him up out of his well-fed stupor.  “See something?”

She shook her head briefly.

He didn’t see anything either.  “Hear something, then?”

She cocked her head to one side and drew her eybrows together slightly.

Johnny listened.  There was a bit of birdsong left, despite the dying day.  There were traffic noises, despite the lack of visible cars.  There was what was perhaps a fire engine, far away.  There were occasional shouts or screeches or barks, probably from neighborhood kids and their pets, but those weren’t that close either.  There were some rustlings in the bushes, certainly more squirrels.  Squirrels were everywhere in the city.  In fact, if he looked around, he could proably see some.  Anywhere there were people and food, you could be sure to find a bold squirrel on the lookout for droppings.

But, actually, now that Johnny looked around, there were no squirrels.  Or birds, either: all the chirping he could hear was from deeper in the trees towards The Creek.  There were no cats, which should be fairly common this close to a residential area, or rabbits, which should be fairly common this close to Rock Creek Park, although they certainly weren’t as brave as the squirrels.  There was, in fact, nothing moving as far as he could see.

“Say, Larissa, I think it’s time to be going.”

Larissa nodded, still searching the area towards the neighborhood.  They both stood up and quickly packed away the leftovers.  Then they both took a step ... in opposite directions.

Larissa gave him her studying look.  Johnny waved at the sky vaguely.  “Look, it’s getting dark.  Traipsing through the trees in the daytime is fun and all, but I don’t want to be lost in the woods at night.”  Larissa arched an eyebrow.  “Not that we were ever lost today, of course!”  Johnny put up his hands, palms out.  “I’m not saying that, I’m just saying ...  City.  People.  You know?”

Larissa pointed back towards the treeline.  “That way is safer.”

Johnny started to give her a “you must be crazy” look, but was distracted by a soft chuff from the bushes between them and the neighborhood.  He froze.  There was a low growling purr that seemed to have an electronic whine embedded in it.  “What the ...” Johnny started, but Larissa was already heading back towards the trail.  Johnny quickly followed.

They ran along the trail for a few hundred yards, then Larissa cut through the trees back to the other path, that ran along the parkway.  The remnants of rush hour were still clogging the road, and Johnny mentally applauded Larissa’s choice.  He felt safer here, even though the commuters, in their single-minded drive to get back to comfortable suburban homes, were a world away from the two ragamuffin street children.  They slowed down now; passing under another busy street that Johnny felt sure was M Street, the main drag in Georgetown.  Still breathing heavily, they walked a couple hundred feet and passed under another road.  “Pennsylvania,” Larissa said in answer to Johnny’s unasked question.

After emerging from the underpass, they walked past a short grassy area to where the trail crossed the Pennsylvania Street exit off the parkway.  Waiting at the edge of the crosswalk for a few cars to pass, Larissa suddenly spun around and looked back toward the gloom under the bridge.

“What” Johnny started to ask, then he heard it too: a soft metallic click whose echo bounced around with all the carsound from the parkway.  It was almost lost in all the traffic noise, and at first Johnny was sure it must be his imagination, but now he thought he caught a flash of small red light as well, and suddenly it seemed more prudent to assume that he wasn’t hearing things.

“Let’s go,” Johnny said, and Larissa nodded.

They crossed the crosswalk at the next convenient break and hustled, not quite running down the trail.  Ahead was a bridge, and some waterway that intersected Rock Creek (“Chesapeake and Ohio Canal” Larissa muttered under her breath) and they made for it.  Johnny had a flash of Amiira reading him “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.”  To their left, the parkway too went over a bridge: Rock Creek was wending its way west to meet the old canal.  Although the sound of the traffic and his own heavy breathing should have made hearing anything else impossible, Johnny would have sworn he could hear something in the water now, perhaps the splashing of a large animal, and when they were almost at the abutment of the bridge, a sound rang out, very loud over the sound of the traffic, a primal big cat scream as reproduced on a cheap Casio synthesizer with too much feedback, and Johnny knew that it wasn’t just in their heads because out of the corner of his eye he could see people in their cars looking wildly around for the source of the noise, and the traffic on the parkway slowed to even more of a crawl as the echoes of that cry rolled down Rock Creek.  They froze.  It was now almost full dark and they could see nothing outside of the flashing of car headlights.  Then there was another great splash and then great, heavy wingbeats, followed by a screech that was surely produced by two pieces of rough metal grating against each other but somehow managed to sound like the cry of a great raptor: a hawk, or more likely an eagle.  Johnny instinctively looked up, but the traffic lights had ruined any hope of night vision and it was just darkness up there.  He felt Larissa’s hand clutch his upper arm and then there was a heavy metal scuttling from the other end of the bridge.  Twin red pinpoints of light appeared in the darkness.

Instantly Larissa yanked his arm and plunged down the embankment towards the water.  Without hesitation Johnny followed, although there was no path, the hill was steep, they couldn’t see, and there was water and likely rocks at the bottom.  Fuck it, Johnny thought, and plunged after the small figure disappearing into the bushes in front of him.

They slid more than they ran, but they reached the bottom of the hill without injury and hit the water.  It was cold, but there didn’t appear to be rocks threatening to snap a leg.  Instead of being darker here, practically under the footbridge, it seemed lighter ... possibly the subtraction of the car headlights made it easier for them to see in the gathering twilight.  The water was cold but not freezing, and was almost up to their waists, making it hard to maneuver.

Larissa turned away from the bridge, facing back toward the canal, but another huge splash sounded in front of them, and this time they could make out a large catlike shape.  Johnny knew there were leopards at the National Zoo, which was just a few miles up The Creek.  Not pleasant to imagine one of them having escaped, certainly, but right now it seemed more pleasant than the alternative.  The big cat turned its head toward them, and there were the red dots of light again, not so small this close up, and the fur color was wrong—more tan than tawny—and then it reared up on its hind legs and just stood there, flashing claws that somehow were made of a bright, silvery metal.  Larissa stared.  “Cougar,” she said.  “Puma.  Mountain lion.  Catamount.  Puma concolor.”

Johnny was pulling the back of her light green jacket as he backpedalled under the bridge, where he could hear water rushing into the creekbed.  “Yeah, right, red-eyed puma with silver claws standing on its hind legs.  Don’t identify, just move!”

Suddenly there was more splashing behind them and for a moment Johnny’s heart stopped, but whatever it was rushed past them and planted itself between them and the cougar-creature.  From this angle, it looked like a massive black wolf, big enough that the water just lapped at its belly, except for its heads, which looked more like coyotes.  Johnny blinked.  Yes, heads, with an S ... three, to be precise.  Two of them snapped ferociously at the man-cougar, which in turn flashed back silver fangs.  One narrow-muzzled head turned to look back over its shoulder and stared directly at them.  The mouth did not open, but Johnny heard a voice nonetheless: Run!


You don’t need to tell me twice, thought Johnny, half-hysterical, and he pulled Larissa back towards the rushing water, which turned out to be a huge outflow pipe.  It was covered with a sturdy metal grate to keep people from getting inside it.  Johnny pulled at it, pointlessly.  It was not going to budge in this lifetime.

“Jackals,” Larissa said calmly.

Johnny looked wildly at her.  “What??” he barked.

“Not coyote heads, jackal heads,” she corrected.  “Golden jackals.  The ones that statues of the god Anubis were based on.  Black-backed and side-striped jackals can’t bare their fangs, of course.”

Johnny gritted his teeth and shook the metal grating as hard as he could (which wasn’t very hard).  “Not helping!” he said.

Larissa didn’t answer.  She was busy watching the three-jackal-headed dog and the metal-fanged were-cougar circling each other, snarling and growling and snapping frenziedly.  The canine had more teeth, but the feline had height and a longer reach.  Johnny decided that Larissa wasn’t going to be immediately useful.

He was about to turn away from the pipe and head further down Rock Creek when he felt something on the other side of the grate.  “Felt” wasn’t exactly the right word, though ... sensed it somehow, in a way that was slightly reminiscent of how he had perceived the mist, but also slightly different.  Without thinking, he reached for it, both figuratively and literally, and nearly bit his tongue when he realized that his arm was now inside the pipe—not just stuck through the bars of the grate, but literally _through
the metal, all the way to his shoulder, which now had crossbars running through it.  For a moment, he almost lost a concentration he hadn’t even really known he had achieved, and he sensed this would have been disastrous.  But he shoved the panic in his brain into a back corner and relaxed again.  He flexed his arm forward.  Now the grate was practically touching his neck.  He flailed around behind him with his other arm, feeling for Larissa.  For a moment he became convinced that the arm was just passing unnoticed through her as well, but then he connected.  He pulled on her jacket and she floundered backwards, still calm, still not taking her eyes off the two creatures.  He could still hear them, sort of, but sound was muffled again, as it had been with the mist.  He pulled her again and brought her back into contact with the grate.  Now was the time to see if he could do what he thought he could.  He felt as if he ought to be able to, but then how could you trust any sort of instinct about something this alien?

He took a half-step forward himself, and now the metal bisected him nearly perfectly.  He knew that if he lost control now, there would be two Johnny Hellebores, but neither one would be much use to anyone.  He ignored the frenzied terror that fought to come bubbling out of his mind and spilling out of his ears.  He twitched something inside him, and then he gave Larissa one last, good pull, and she stepped backward cleanly through the grate.

Slowly she put her hands up to touch the metal.  Hastily Johnny pulled himself the rest of the way through and let go of everything.  When Larissa’s hand brushed the metal grate, he could tell it was solid to her touch.  And his hearing returned in a rush, and the sounds out there were frightful indeed.  “Hey, L?” he said softly.  “Let’s move a little further down this pipe, okay?”  She turned and stared up into his eyes, but still didn’t speak.  He wondered if something in her might have just snapped, but he comforted himself that she didn’t talk that much at the best of times.

He pulled her close and they moved cautiously down the outflow drain.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Chapter 8 (continued)

As they passed through Dupont Circle, Johnny asked Larissa where they were headed.  The little girl shrugged.  “Park,” she said shortly.

Johnny considered that.  “Rock Creek, or Mitchell?”

Larissa merely arched an eyebrow.

“Nothing wrong with Mitchell Park, you know,” Johnny contributed.  “It’s a nice little park.”  Larissa kept walking.  “Maybe not as big as Rock Creek Park ...”  Again the eyebrow.  “Okay, not even remotely as big as Rock Creek.  But, you know ... it has tennis courts, and ...”  At this point, Larissa actually stopped and stared at him.  “No, I know: we don’t play tennis.  I’m just ...”  He stopped and laughed at himself.  “I’m just babbling, apparently.  Lead on, Macduff.”

“Lay on.”


Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries ‘Hold, enough!’”  Larissa paused.  “Not that you want me to attack you, I suspect.”  Johnny smiled.  “Perhaps ... Forward the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!  Although of course that’s still a bit martial for the sentiment you were trying to express.  You could try ...”  But Johnny was laughing openly now.  Larissa stopped and looked at him.

“No, nothing.” Johnny was still chuckling.  “It’s just good to be back to normal.”  He looked around the crowds walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue.  “Or as normal as our lives usually are, I suppose.  Just ... carry on.  You lead, and I shall follow.”

Larissa looked at him for a moment longer, then turned and resumed walking.

At Q Street they turned left and walked across the bridge over the Rock Creek Parkway.  Just past the end of the bridge, they ducked off the sidewalk to the right and walked down through the trees to the bike path.  The trees were just starting to change colors.  Though the sounds of traffic still came to them clearly, it was as close to walking in the wilderness as it got in DC.

They followed the path, occasionally spying the outer edges of the cemetery to their left, then across Devil’s Chair Bridge, where the bike path rejoined the parkway.  Following the countours of the busy road, they eventually walked underneath Massachusetts, then the bike path cut across Rock Creek again.  Here Larissa took a left onto the footpath and they walked back they way they had come, but on the other side of the creek now, back under Massachusetts again.  It was a pleasant two miles or so altogether, accompanied by birdsong and the busy rustlings of squirrels.  Even walking alongside the parkway, this was still a place where you could forget you were actually in a city of half a million people.  After crossing another small creek, Larissa abruptly left the footpath and led them unerringly through the trees until they came out in the heart of Montrose Park.  Then they strolled west down R Street and took a right on Wisconsin.

They were in Georgetown now, a place where Johnny rarely came.  The more upscale parts of town contained more rich people, which theoretically meant people with more coin to spare, but it also meant people with far less tolerance of ragged street urchins.  But Larissa seemed just as much at home here as in any of the “bad” parts of town (though even the street people stayed out of the really bad neighborhoods).  She walked confidently down the sidewalk, ignoring anyone who looked askance at her.

They crossed to the west side of Wisconsin and approached a small café.  Johnny looked at Larissa somewhat nervously.  “Hey, L?  I’m not sure we can afford ...”  Larissa ignored him and opened the door, ushering him inside.

The interior of the place was as fancy as he had feared.  Johnny didn’t normally feel that dirty, but it was undeniable that he generally wore the same clothes every day, and only got to wash them once a week or so at best.  He was sure he didn’t smell that hot compared to the sort of people that would frequent this upscale eatery.  He felt several eyes on him, but no one commented.  Larissa took his arm and led him up to the counter.  A young, very well-dressed woman came over and looked them up and down.  “Can I help you?” she asked, with vague disapproval.

Larissa ignored her and waved to someone in a back room.  Immediately an older woman with slightly graying brown hair piled on her head came out and flapped a hand at the waitress.  “Never mind, Mary, I’ll take care of them.”  She beamed down at Larissa.  “And how’s my secret weapon today?”

Johnny blinked.

The woman lifted a hinged countertop and ushered them behind the counter.  Ignoring Mary’s flustered look, she shooed them into the back room, which turned out to be a small office just off the kitchen.  She closed the door behind them and offered them chairs.  “Who’s your friend?” she asked Larissa.

Still somewhat confused, Johnny stuck out his hand.  “Johnny Hellebore, ma’am.”

“Oh, pooh,” she said, clasping his hand briefly.  “I’m not a ‘ma’am,’ I’m just Sandra.  Very pleased to meet you, Johnny.”  She turned back to Larissa, still smiling broadly.  “And is Master Johnny one of the priveleged few?”

Larissa nodded.

“Ah, good, that’ll make things easier.”  She turned back to Johnny.  “Such a pain, you know, not being able to use the name.  I generally register her under ‘Elizabeth’ and then just call her ‘Liz.’”  She lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “But Larissa is a much prettier name.”

Johnny nodded, more confused than ever.  Obviously this was a friend.  But what did she mean by “register”?

“Well!” Sandra continued.  “Let me get you some food first off.  I’m sure you’re both quite hungry.”  She bustled off to the kitchen.  Larissa sat on the chair, swinging her legs back and forth.  Johnny looked around.  The walls held various plaques and certificates.  Here was a caterer’s license made out to Sandra Hunter.  Here was a diploma for an Advanced Culinary Arts degree from Stratford University, also for Sandra Hunter.  And here was a plaque for 1st place in a ...

Sandra came back in juggling several plates.  “Ah, so you’ve seen our trophies!” she said, beaming.  “That one was for last year’s tournament.  Substantial cash prize, that one was.  And this one over here”—she had put the plates down on the desk and was proudly pointing out further plaques now—“was the year before, we came in second, and this one ...”

Johnny interrupted.  “Second?  With Larissa on your team?  Seriously?”

Sandra frowned.  “Well, you know, there is a bit of luck involved.  The other team got the better die rolls, that’s all.”

Johnny put up a hand.  “Sorry.  It’s just ... I mean, she knows everything.”

Sandra immediately put her huge grin back on.  “Yes, isn’t she wonderful?  First place year before last as well.”  She pointed at yet another plaque.

Johnny nodded.  “I didn’t actually know there were organized tournaments for Trivial Pursuit.”

Sandra nodded enthusiastically.  “Oh, yes.  Well, you know, it’s not a national sport or anything, but we have a pretty big group that covers the greater metro area, and we do an annual tournament.  And I’ve been playing for years now.  Then I found Larissa here ... and, well, the rest is history.”  She looked at them both, still smiling.  “But, please, don’t let me carry on.  I’ve brought you the best my humble kitchen has to offer.  Eat, eat!”

As it turned out, Sandra’s “humble kitchen” was quite impressive.  There was French onion soup, and pasta salad, and hot prime rib sandwiches with gooey brie cheese.  It was all amazing, as far as Johnny was concerned.  He hadn’t eaten this well in ... well, however long it had been since he left home.  And probably not for a while before that: the last few weeks, between his father’s exit and his mother’s final breakdown, the cooks were just killing time while they found new jobs.

As he ate, Larissa was packing up food into a curious vest thing.  “What’s that?” Johnny asked, his mouth half-full.

Sandra jumped in.  “These are marvelous.  You wear them under your coats ... here, I’ve got one for you too.”  She held it up.  “You see, so that you can carry food around without being obvious.  I understand that in the circles you two travel in, carrying a bag or pack or something along those lines would just be inviting trouble.”  Johnny had to agree with the wisdom of this.

“Thanks Sandra,” said Larissa when she was all packed up.

Sandra was still beaming.  “My pleasure, honey!  You know I’m here for you, any time.  Half that cash prize is technically yours, you know.”

Larissa gave a faint smile.  “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it.”

Sandra chuckled.  “Benjamin Franklin today, is it?  Very well, then, I’ll hold on to your half and just mete it out in foodstuffs and vests.”  Her laugh was unaffected and infectious.  Johnny couldn’t help but grin himself.

As he finished up, Larissa was handing him a vest to wear himself.  He took his coat off, put the vest on, and then replaced the coat over it.  The vest itself was light, but the food packed in it gave it a little heft.  Still, it wouldn’t weigh him down too much, and the extra food was certainly welcome.  This was dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow, at least, and possibly more.  None of the food in the vest was hot, so it would probably keep just fine until they got around to eating it.  Additionally, there was a thin thermos attached under one arm.  Water, most likely.

As Larissa zipped up her own jacket, she pointed at the half-finished menu Sandra had been working on when they came in.  “Try salmon roe here,” she said, putting a finger about halfway down the page, which was upside-down to them.

Sandra scooted around the desk and put on a pair of half-moon glasses from her pocket.  Squinting at the page a bit, she drew her eyebrows together.  “Red caviar?” she mumbled.  “Salmon roe, salmon roe ...”  She trailed off, gazing now at the ceiling, lost in thought.  Suddenly she clapped her hands and broke into a grin.  “Yes, salmon roe!  Of course!”  She rushed around the desk and siezed Larissa’s head, kissing her crown.  “You are brilliant, my little partner!”  She turned her happy expression onto Johnny.  “You must come again, Master Johnny.  And take care of this one.  She is precious.”

Johnny nodded.  “Yes, thank you, Ms. Sandra.  And yes, I’ll take good care of her.”

Together, they left the café, Sandra waving at them happily.  Larissa led Johnny on down Wisconsin until they reached Whitehaven, where they turned right to head toward Dumbarton Oaks Park.

section break


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life in a New House

Of course, the downside of cautioning your audience never to read your blog is that there is no one to notice if you happen to miss a week. Which I did last week, as it happens. If you’re faithfully not reading this blog, you might have guessed that the reason has to do with the last blog post I managed to get up. And you’d be right. Last week at blog posting time I was in between packing and moving, and in no fit state to compose anything worth reading.

And this week I am sitting in a new family room, listening to the rain coming down and thanking all that is holy that I don’t have to worry about my office flooding any more, watching the same TV, but it’s up higher so that it looks bigger now, less worried about the noise drifting up the stairs because the stairs are halfway across the house, contemplating a very short walk to my room when it’s time to turn in, and hearing the very muffled noises my children are making now that their computers and televisions and whatnot are a floor away. Overall quite satisfying.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, of course. There was a gas leak in the backyard, so they turned off the gas back there and now we can’t test out our new spa. The upstairs furnace wouldn’t come on during the house inspection, so they “fixed” that ... now it won’t turn off. We just shelled out nearly $500 for a new pool sweeper and over $200 in floor lamps—we used to go to Target or Wal-Mart once a month and blow 100 bucks a pop, but apparently that’s nothing compared to what we’re going to spend at Home Depot now. And this is not even considering the actual mortgage payment, the first of which won’t be due until the end of the month.

But, hey, nothing’s perfect, right? Not even this house, although it’s pretty damn close. Every time I think about all the little things that are wrong, I start to feel guilty. I have, after all, just bought a seven bedroom house. With four bathrooms. Nearly 3,000 square feet. With a pool and a spa. And a covered patio on one side, and an enclosed garden area on the other. And a two-car garage with a sort of a deck on top of it. And I got it for probably about two-thirds what I would have paid for it not three years ago. And I got a 30-year fixed mortgage with the lowest rate we’ve seen since they started tracking such things. So, you know, when I point out the fact that the driveway is way too narrow to comfortably fit both cars into, or the fact that there's so many freakin' windows in the place that there's nowhere to put any bookcases, I can’t help but feel downright ungrateful. I suppose it’s like the man says: I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.

But perhaps you don’t want to hear me ramble on about my new house (although I would refer you once again to the name of this blog). Perhaps I should try to place this experience into a larger social context. I suppose I could wax philosophical about the large quantities of stuff we tend to amass over our lifetimes. This new house supposedly has about 700 more square feet than the last one and yet we’re still up to our ears in boxes over here. It’s overwhelming sometimes how much crap we seem to have accumulated.

Or, I could talk about the powerful feeling you can derive from knowing that, no matter how screwed up things are, at least it’s your house. Just the feeling of ownership, of knowing that it’s all yours, warts and all, is worth quite a lot.

But I suppose, in the end, the main thing is that it’s a pretty awesome feeling to know that your family finally has a place in the world. Most likely, assuming we can afford to keep making the payments on this beast, this will be the house where my elder son learns to drive, and where my younger son learns to read. The place where any future children are brought home to from the hospital, or the birthing center, or maybe even be born right here inside these four walls. For the foreseeable future, this is the place where we will swim, and sleep, and play, and eat, and watch, and wait, and live, and love. This is home.

And that's profound enough for me, I think.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Homeownership Achieved

It’s almost done. I’m almost a homeowner. Everything is signed, and everything is paid. Just waiting two more days for keys to be put in my hand and then we’re set.

Many of my friends are astonished I ever bought a house. For many years I was virulently opposed to the very concept of buying a house. This is because my first job in the software industry was working on mortgage software. Specifically mortgage compliance software, which means software to help banks generate the mountains of documentation that the government requires them to in order to protect consumers. And what I learned is that the government doesn’t actually have any rules that say that the bank isn’t allowed to screw you. They only have rules that say that if the bank screws you, you have to agree to it. Which you might think you wouldn’t do, but then when the bank presents you with 100 pages of documents, you just sign them. You, house owner: you didn’t actually read those 100 pages of legalese, did you? No, of course not. So you actually have no idea how many many ways you agreed that the bank could screw you.

So, basically, working on mortgage software is kind of like working at Burger King: pretty soon you swear you’ll never eat fast-food again.

Of course, eventually, you do.

The problem is that the advantages of renting haven’t been working out for me lately. What, you say to yourself? there are no advantagtes to renting! You say that to yourself because you have been programmed to believe that. In our country (I’m speaking of the USA), home ownership is touted as the ultimate goal: the thing everyone must achieve. If you do not achieve it, in fact, then you are “homeless,” right? And what a great sadness that is. Never mind that this relentless single-minded drive to make everyone a homeowner nearly resulted in the collapse of the entire global financial market. Nope, the main point is that, when you rent, you’re just “throwing your money away” every month.

This is, quite frankly, hogwash. When you rent, you’re paying someone for a service. That service is to maintain a house, in good repair, that you can live in. You don’t have to pay the bank’s outrageous interest on it. You don’t have to pay the property taxes on it. You don’t have to pay the insurance on it. And you don’t have to pay any repair bills on it. Something goes wrong, you just pick up the phone and your landlord takes care of it. Done. Anyone who tells you that you will save money by buying a house is outright lying to your face. I heard all that crap about cars too: You’re always driving these old piece of shit cars, and they’re always breaking down ... why, it would actually cost you less just to buy a new car! Then the warranty covers whatever goes wrong! Bullshit. I have absolutely not saved money by buying a new car, nor does the warranty cover “everything.”

But there were other reasons that I broke down and finally bought a new car at 38, and there are other reasons that I’m finally buying a house at 44. First off, I’ve had two extremely crappy landlords in a row: my Maryland landlord never fixed anything and then stiffed us on our security deposit, and my California landlord never fixed anything and ended up losing his house. So that whole concept of just picking up the phone and having this or that fixed? Yeah, not really happening. (Now, if I could have had landlords like my last Virginia landlord, that would have been a different story.) And it turns out that, the older you get, the more you really want to be able to just do whatever the hell you feel like to the house you’re living in. Oh, you will pay for that privilege, never doubt it. But sometimes it’s worth it.

So I must stress to my friends that the reasons I said I’d never buy a house still stand. They just got overwhelmed by other reasons.

But, these last few weeks, I can’t help but be forcibly reminded of the whole reason I swore off homebuying in the first place. This experience of closing the loan and dealing with all the people required for that process has been the most horrific of my life. Which I suppose says something about how overall nice my life has been, so I should really try to look at it that way, but, just for today, I’m not. I must charge you once again to avail yourself of this opportunity to look up at the masthead and seriously reconsider this expenditure of your time. Because, basically, you’re not getting anything more out of this rant. It’s mainly here so that I can purge all this venom from my system.

Now, I’ve already had a chance to complain about people who are too stupid to operate email, so I won’t repeat myself on that score. But just suffice it to remind my non-existent audience that, because I actually have to deal with these morons in person, I’m already a wee bit cranky. Next, let’s talk about how antsy people get when you actually try to read the crap they want you to sign. They can’t come out and say that you shouldn’t read it. But they’re certainly not above implying what a moron you are for reading it. “I’ve never had anyone pick up the documents to review before!” Yeah, I’m too stupid to understand what you meant there, Chuckles. Thanks. “Well, you understand that these are legal forms and we can’t really change them.” First of all, you goddamn well can change them if you want to. If you want my half a million (nearly a million, after interest and finance charges) dollars, you’ll fall all over yourself to change them. And, secondly, just because it won’t change is no reason that I shouldn’t understand just how badly I’m getting bent over here.

And, while we’re on the topic of dealing with people who could stand to be nicer, could someone explain to me the inverse ratio between value of purchase and quality of customer service? I go to the dollar store, clerks are nice as hell. At, say, the Wal-mart, employees may be mildly less helpful, but at least they still act like they’re doing their best. If I go to a high-end electronics store, it’s roughly 50-50 whether I get anyone to even pay attention to me. At a fancy furniture store, I have to practically beg for someone to wait on me. At a car dealership, they’re doing me a favor by deigning to serve me. And for a house? I am lower than the scum they have to scrape from their shoes. I exist for one thing: to sign the papers that make them money, and, if I’m not doing that, they need to figure out how to get rid of me as soon as possible.

Now, we do have a real estate agent. And he’s actually quite personable ... to a point. He already figured out that I was the pain in the ass party in the house-buying process, so he doesn’t really talk to me any more. He doesn’t respond to email of course, but he doesn’t call me on the phone either. He always calls the mother. Yesterday, I called him for something and got his voice mail; she called ten minutes later and he answered the phone. I suppose he just then walked in, eh?

And it’s radically downhill after we move on from the real estate agent. My loan officer is pretty nice, but she hates me. Well, I say “is pretty nice,” but it might be more accurate to say “was pretty nice until she got my signed papers back and now we don’t really talk.” My “escrow officer” was a complete nightmare. And the notary who had to put up with me asking questions about every document she shoved in front of me was barely capable of restraining herself from stabbing me in the eye with her pen.

Speaking of signing things, that part was completely ridiculous too. Being the freak that I am, I read all the documents. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, because mostly they all say the same thing. So reading the first ten pages or so is hard work, and, after that, you just start going, “blah de blah, yeah yeah, already read that, yadda yadda, same ol’ bullshit, moving on ...” Hell, I signed the exact same form four times at one point. Not similar forms, like when I signed the “Uniform Loan Application” (a.k.a. “1003”) three times—that was actually three slightly different forms that were just mainly the same. No, this was four different copies of the exact same form. Just in case they lost one? or three?

And most of the stuff that was ostensibly different was the government telling me how they were protecting me by making the bank disclose all their evil ways in language I couldn’t possibly interpret, or the banks doing the most elaborate CYA dance in the world by advising me that every disaster known to humankind might befall my house, and it certainly wouldn’t be their fault. Okay, advising me that my house might get hit by an earthquake: sure, I live in California now, that one makes sense. Advising me that my house might contain mold, or lead-based paint ... well, okay, that doesn’t seem that likely, but I guess. But after a while it just gets silly. At one point I actually had to sign something acknowledging that if my house happened to be located near a golf course, it might get damamged by golf balls. Really? I would have never imagined such a thing. Thank God you informed me! Never mind that the nearest golf course is 3 miles away. It could be a really bad slice.

So now it’s basically over, thank <insert deity of choice>. For some insane reason you don’t sign docs on closing day in California like a normal state. So closing isn’t for two more days, but the signing is done and I’ve paid everything they’ve asked of me. So I don’t think there’s anything that can go wrong at this point (certainly nothing was mentioned in all the documents I signed), but, hey, who knows? The main thing I’m thankful for (as we approach the holiday where I need to be thinking about such things) is that, after a few more days, I will never have to deal with these people again.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 8 (begun)

To the Woods

Johnny woke up in a bunkhouse, which was what the street people called it when a bunch of them all slept together in a sort of pile.  Walker Crow said they didn’t call it that in New York, or Philly, or pretty much anywhere else, and theoretically he should know.  But “bunkhousing” is what they called it in DC.  This particular bunkhouse was behind some memorial or other off Scott Circle.  Someone had a tarp, and Dan the Man had piles of chicken that the nearby Popeye’s was just going to throw out, but he talked the manager into giving to him instead.  As always, he had showed up with his big goofy grin and shouted “Who’s the man?!?”  So it was a bit of a party, and the cops only came by once, an older beat cop who just shook his head at them and told them to keep it down and don’t scare the tourists (which of course was silly, ’cause there were no tourists in Scott Circle, at night, in the middle of the week, in the fall).  And then they just bunkhoused right there and all woke up in a mass of limbs.  Johnny didn’t really bunkhouse that often, ’cause he figured it was mainly a great way to get to know other people’s fleas and lice up close and personal, which didn’t really sound like that good a deal, but he honestly hadn’t wanted to be alone lately.  Not even alone with Larissa.

She was here, of course.  Buried somewhere in the pile of bodies.  Probably curled up underneath Jimmy the Squid, who was very protective of her.  Most of the reason people didn’t mess with Larissa was fear of Jimmy the Squid.  Jimmy didn’t talk much, but he was quick with his fists if you got on his bad side, and apparently the Navy had taught him how to handle himself.  When he decided you needed a beat-down, you got a beat-down.

So Johnny wasn’t worried about where Larissa was.  She had not left his side since they fled that alley where all the weird shit had happened.  They hadn’t really been talking about it, of course ... what was there to say?  Shit like that simply didn’t happen.  Beyond that point, the discussion went to places that Johnny had no desire to explore, and he suspected Larissa had even less.  Larissa was comfortable with facts.  This ... this was far from factual.

Johnny lay still for a while, waiting for the other folks in the bunkhouse to get up.  The light around him was blue, coming through the translucent tarp.  It was quite warm in there with all the body heat, and no one was poking him in the ribs or elbowing him in the face.  His legs were under someone, but they had taken everyone’s coats to make a sort of mattress that they were all laying on, so even that wasn’t awful.  He closed his eyes again, wondering if he should just go back to sleep, but the thought made him nervous somehow.  He guessed he’d been having a bad dream and his brain wasn’t anxious to go back there.  In fact, he suspected he’d been having nothing but bad dreams for the past two nights, but his brain had mercifully flushed them all, leaving just a patina of nerves and mild discomfort.

Suddenly the tarp was thrown back and Jimmy the Squid was sitting up.  “Up,” he grunted at everyone.  Larissa emerged from under him, and other heads appeared as well: there was Dan the Man, provider of chicken, and there was little Sanchez with his moustache that was almost bigger than he was, and here was Marge, occasionally known as Large Marge, but never to her face, picking herself up off Johnny’s legs (which explained why they were completely asleep), and there was a white head that Johnny didn’t recognize.  For a few minutes they all busied themselves getting themselves put back together.  Johnny got his coat back and spent some time walking the pins and needles out of his legs.  Sanchez folded up the tarp into a surprisingly small package and made it disappear into a pocket of his coat.  Jimmy the Squid pulled out some K-Y jelly and started to shave with a large knife.  The unfamiliar guy, who Johnny had now decided was the same fellow he and Larissa had met in Dupont Circle two days ago, was watching Jimmy the Squid with fascination.

“You can shave with that stuff?” he asked.  His voice quavered a bit, but Johnny thought maybe he just always sounded like that.

Jimmy the Squid grunted affirmatively.  “Just gotta clean the blade afterwards.  Ruin it elsewise.”

Sanchez stepped over and took the tube from Jimmy.  “Also very good for combing,” he grinned, applying a bit to a tiny comb he produced from somewhere in the depths of his coat.  He then carefully combed out his moustache and shaped it so it stuck out in both directions.  Larissa identified the moustache as a “Hungarian”; Sanchez himself called it a “Zapata.”  “Is just like mousse, eh?”  Sanchez grinned at the new guy and offered the K-Y to Johnny.

“Got a real comb?” Johnny asked.  Sanchez made the moustache comb disappear into one pocket and produced a larger comb from another.  Sanchez had a pocket for just about anything.  Once, Parking Jimmy had been talking about getting his ear pierced and Whiskey Sally said she could do it for him if they could just find a magic marker, a piercing stud, some peroxide, and a potato.  Markers were easy; people needed them for signs, so there was nearly always one at hand.  Polish Peg, ever practical, tossed in the peroxide.  Without a word, Marge held out a large, grubby hand with a piercing stud in it.  Parking Jimmy had started to look a bit nervous at this point.  “Yeah, okay, yeah, right, but so, where ya gonna get a potato from, right?” he stammered.  Smiling broadly, Sanchez reached into a pocket and produced a large white potato.

And that was how Parking Jimmy got his ear pierced.

Johnny combed the K-Y through his hair, trying to tease apart the many tangles.  New Guy stared at him in fascination.  “It really does work,” Johnny explained.  “I know it sounds weird, but it keeps you from looking like a crazy.”  He turned and offered some to Larissa, but she shook her head and borrowed Marge’s pink brush.  “Drew,” she whispered to Johnny.

Johnny blinked.  He started to ask “who drew what?” but then he remembered that that was New Guy’s name.  He smiled gratefully back at Larissa.  “Where’d'you get the lube?” Drew asked.

“Drugstore,” Jimmy the Squid answered.

Drew looked confused.  “Why not just buy the mousse then?”

Sanchez started cackling.  Jimmy the Squid just spat.  “My friend,” said Sanchez, “mousse is very expensive.  The K-Y, she is cheap.  Cheaper if you buy the fake, see?”  He pointed to the tube, which just said “PERSONAL LUBRICANT” on it in block letters, as Johnny handed it back to Jimmy the Squid.  “And the K-Y, she is versatile, you see?”

He pointed to Jimmy the Squid, who helpfully supplied “Can’t shave with mousse.”

“And there we have it.”  Sanchez winked at Drew, then clapped him on the back.  Drew looked uncomfortable with the close contact, but he’d just have to get used to that from the small Mexican.

“So, uh, what is this thing we slept behind, anyway?” Drew asked.  “There’s a statue of some guy in a robe on the other side.”

Immediately all eyes turned to Larissa.  She stepped forward, still brushing her hair with Marge’s pink brush.

“Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, born April 10th, 1755 in Saxony, studied medicine at Leipzig and then at Vienna.  Practiced as a doctor for three years before giving it up because he thought the medicines of his time were doing more harm than good.  Invented homeopathy, publishing The Organon of the Healing Art in 1810.  Died July 2nd, 1843.  The Hahnemann Memorial was a gift from the American Institute of Homeopathy; it was designed by architect Julius F. Harder and sculptor Charles Henry Niehaus, and dedicated on June 21st, 1900 with President McKinley in attendence, less than 15 months before he would be shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz.  Hahnemann is carved in bronze, and seated on a pedestal bearing the words ‘similia similibus curantur,’ or ‘like cures like.’  The four bas-relief panels depict Hahnemann as student, chemist, teacher, and doctor.”

Drew stared at the little girl.  Sanchez just chuckled softly to himself.  Larissa finished brushing her hair and handed the brush back to a beaming Marge.  Dan the Man had wandered over as well (Johnny suspected he had been relieving himself by a tree) and slapped Larissa on the back.  “So, I’m Dan the Man, and this guy is Han the Man, eh?”

“Hahnemann,” Larissa corrected, frowning.

“Whatever!” Dan boomed.  “Sounds like my kind of guy!”  He laughed raucously.  Dan the Man did nearly everything raucously.

Jimmy the Squid stood up.  “Gotta go to work,” he grunted.

Dan the Man gave a rare frown.  He didn’t much care for the concept of work.  Sanchez just grinned at the man with the massive forearms.  “Got a job again, man?  Where at?”

Jimmy the Squid squinted back.  “Construction.”

“Good for you, hombre!  Get out there and earn those dollars.  I wish I could join you, my friend.”

Jimmy spat again.  “Could,” he said shortly.

Sanchez’s smile faltered a bit.  “Yes, well, you know, mi amigo, I am not suited for hard labor with my small frame and all.”  Jimmy the Squid grunted.  Sanchez scurried over to Marge and put his arm around her waist, his smile returning.  “And besides, who would take care of my mamacita here, eh?”  Jimmy the Squid just shook his head and walked off toward N Street.

Drew watched him walk off then shakily got to his feet as well.  “Good to, ah, good to meet you all.  Or see you again, as the case may ... ah, well, goodbye then.”  He headed toward Massachusetts.  Sanchez and Marge started walking in the opposite direction, towards Rhode Island Avenue.

Dan the Man turned to Johnny and Larissa.  “Just us left, guys.  Shall we see what sort of trouble we can get into?”

Johnny shook his head.  “Thanks Dan, but I think we’re just going to go scrounge up some breakfast.  You take care now.  And thanks again for the grub.”

As Johnny and Larissa headed back towards Scott Circle, they could hear Dan the Man calling after them.  “Sure thing guys!  Let’s do it again real soon!”

section break


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Once Upon an Email

Why do people have such issues with email?

First and foremost, it’s 2010. We’ve had email, in one form or another, for about forty years now. Over 75% of us in North America have email (about 20% worldwide). It’s not really a new-fangled thing any more.

But still I have to deal with people who want to call me on the phone. I’m working on buying a house right now, and trying to get my real estate agent, my loan officer, or my escrow people to deal with me in email is like pulling teeth. I can’t seem to convince my doctors to communicate via email either. I know I’m a technogeek by profession, but seriously: get with the times people.

Basically, it’s like this: A conversation consists of a series of responses. Perhaps the first exchange in the conversation isn’t a response, but, if you think about it, many conversations are just picking up where a previous conversation left off, so even that first bit of communication is often a response. Now, if you call me on the phone, what you’re saying is that you want to deliver your responses at a time when it’s convenient for you, regardless of how convenient it may be (or not) for me. If I call you instead, it’s really the same thing, only reversed. If you insist on us talking face-to-face, it’s even worse. When you have a meeting at work, it’s often a time when it’s equally inconvenient for everyone, including the person who called the meeting. But when we communicate via email, each person can deliver their response at the time that’s most convenient for them. If you’re a morning person, you can respond to my emails first thing in the morning, when you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I, of course, will likely be sound asleep, or at best barely conscious. But then I can respond to your email in the middle of the night, when I’m most productive and you, perhaps, are long asleep.

Of course, we constantly hear cautionary tales about miscommunicating in email. After all, we’re told, you can’t see a person’s facial expression or read their body language, so you’re likely to misconstrue what they said. This is basically a giant crock of shit. People have been communicating with each other via letters for millenia. Hell, what do you think literature is? I can’t see Shakespeare’s facial expression while I’m reading Romeo and Juliet, but I’m pretty sure I know what he’s talking about. Ah, but people write emails hastily, we’re told. That’s the difference. Basically what this is saying is that email communication is “inferior” because people are too stupid to reread what they’ve written before they hit “send.” What kind of sense does that make? It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

In an email, I can ask you more than one question at a time and not have to worry about you forgetting any of them. What happens if I try to ask you multiple questions in person? Just watch a press conference or listen to a call-in talk show to find out. But, in an email, all the questions are right there in front of you, easily referred back to. Not that that helps most people. The majority of the people I send multiple questions to in email don’t come even remotely close to answering them all. Personally, I intersperse my answers in the quoted email, answering each question or responding to each point; this insures that I don’t miss anything. I have been accused of being rude or mean in my emails because of this: that somehow I’m “dissecting” others’ emails to me and “attacking” the points therein. This, again, baffles me. How did “thorough” come to mean “rude”?

I’ve also been told that I say things in email I wouldn’t say face-to-face (and, to be fair, some say that other people do this as well). In my case at least, this is also bullshit. I don’t say anything to you that I don’t want you to hear, and the medium of delivery is irrelevant. I do think that most people feel they have a right to be more offended by an email than by a spoken comment though. I’ve had people get their nose completely out of joint in response to a comment that I made in email when I’ve made the same comment to them in person many times and they just smiled. Whether this is my fault or the fault of the receiver (and you can probably guess which opinion I favor), that doesn’t matter: either way, I feel fairly confident we can agree that it isn’t email’s fault.

In a business context, we’ve become utterly schizophrenic about email. Have an important business conversation in email and someone is sure to bitch you out for not just getting up and talking to the person “to avoid misunderstandings.” On the other hand, have a series of personal conversations about an important business topic and you’re bound to get bitched out sooner or later for not keeping a permanent record of the decisions you came to. When we have a business meeting, someone is supposed to take notes. Well, here’s a news flash: if you conduct the conversation via email, no one needs to take notes.

In fact, having a permanent record of the conversation is one of the main reasons I prefer email. Especially for confusing things like monetary amounts required for escrow. How am I supposed to remember what you told me on the phone three days later? I can barely understand it today. But do these people put things like that in email? No, they produce reams of incomprehensible legal documents that they want to get faxed around ad infinitum, and then they attach notes saying to call them if I have any questions. WTF???

Another thing that bugs me with email is the complete ignorance about how to use the “reply all” feature. I’m constantly reading things that tell people never to use this, because it’s “bad.” This is moronic. If you don’t want me to reply-all, don’t include the entire world in your distribution list in the first place. Other than the email equivalent of loudspeaker announcements (like company-wide emails), I always use reply-all. I’m assuming that if you CC’ed those people originally, you must want to keep them apprised of the topic at hand. And, likewise, if I CC someone on my email to you, you better reply-all when you reply. I actually have an acronym that I use when I forward an email from some moron who doesn’t comprehend how to use reply-all: OBOTR-AI, or “on behalf of the reply-all impaired” (occasionally abbreviated “AAARRRGGGHH!!!”). It’s amazing to me how difficult it’s been convincing these new house people to include Christy on their replies. Pointing out that Christy is the person who actually writes the checks doesn’t seem to do the trick. Pointing out that she checks her email more often than I do and therefore CC’ing her will get you a faster response doesn’t make an impression either. I’ve actually had to change my email signature to remind them to do it. This results in about a 50% success rate. Which I guess is about as good as I can reasonably hope for.

So here is this wonderful invention called “email” which radically increases my efficiency at communication, and I’m stuck dealing with people who can’t seem to use it. I have similar problems with instant messaging. I can easily conduct four or five simultaneous IM conversations, and often do other work at the same time, and still I have to deal with sending people an IM and then hearing the phone ring, or have them walking over to interrupt me. If I wanted to talk to you in person, I could have got up or picked up the phone myself: don’t screw up my workflow by deciding that face-to-face communication is “better” and doing me the favor of taking matters into your own hands. Even worse, don’t assume that I’m being lazy if I send you an IM when you’re three cubes away. That’s just insulting. I’m happy for you that you love to talk to people in person. Just keep it to yourself.

But unfortunately there’s no point in telling people this at the time. In the first place, they get all whiny about it. Like I’m insulting them by stating a preference for communicating more efficiently. (And, yes, it’s more efficient for them as well: just because they don’t like it doesn’t negate its advantages.) And then there’s the point that, if I didn’t have time to talk to you face-to-face, I sure as hell don’t have time to explain to you why I don’t have time to talk to you face-to-face. Overall quicker to just sigh to myself and stop what I’m doing and pray that I remember where I left off and give up and let you babble on. I hope your damn facial expressions and body language are worth it. Generally they’re not.

So I’ll soldier on and keep trying to communicate as best I can, and hope the rest of the world catches on at some point. Many people have. There are at least three or four people at work that I can count on to communicate with me electronically, and very effectively at that. I have no problem understanding what these people are saying, and I don’t miss seeing their faces. I see their faces every day anyway, sooner or later. These people give me hope that one day, when I move to the middle of the jungle or something like that, I will still be able to communicate with the world.

Well, the ones that count, anyway.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sanity Restored?

Since I moved entirely across the country, from our nations #2 worst traffic to its #1, I have primarily missed my friends.  My attitude towards friendship is one I hope to explore in a future blog someday; for now let it suffice to say that personal relationships are the thing I most value in life.  So, yes, I’ve missed seeing those people every day to whom I’d grown close.  And that’s it.  Really, nothing else about living on the East Coast was worth crying over.  Oh, perhaps I spent a few moments here and there bemoaning the radical difference in Chinese food (you order chow mein here and they bring you lo mein, for Christ’s sake!).  But that’s hardly a serious worry.  Basically, if everyone I had left behind just had the good sense to move out to California like I did, there would not be a single reason for me to ever regret no longer living in Washington DC.

Well, until yesterday.

For the first time in three and a half years, I actually thought about not living in DC any more and went “bummer.”  The reason?  Why, Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, of course.

I was listening to NPR on my way home just Friday night, and I heard this curious comment, from Timothy Noah, who is apparently a “senior writer” at Slate:

I have had the growing suspicion that the participants in this rally don’t entirely think of it as a comedy show, anyway. I think that they are mistaking this participation in this rally, they are mistaking for some sort of political statement. That confusion troubles me.

Now, normally I like Slate, but I have to say that Mr. Noah’s confusion troubles me.  The idea that someone might make a political statement that is neither Democratic nor Republican, neither Conservative nor Liberal, neither right nor left, is obviously so inconceivable to Mr. Noah that he can’t even consider it.  No, any attempt to “restore sanity” to our political process is obviously a “comedy show,” of course.  And he sure hopes everyone who goes there knows that they’re just supposed to laugh at the silly men on stage and then go home and get serious about voting.  ‘Cause if those people thought they were making some sort of “political statement” ... well, that would just be sad.  Imagine that! a political statement about reasonableness and compromise!  What a joke!

Now, at this point I have self-identified as a Liberal, because I have not only admitted to watching “The Daily Show” but also to listening to NPR.  Geez, how much more liberal could I get?  Well, obviously I could be watching MSNBC or listening to Air America, but somehow that distinction is lost on most people who lean even slightly to the right.  So I fear I will have to let you know that, if you already think I’m a Liberal at this point, there’s not much point in reading further (not that you should be reading at all, of course: see title of blog).  If you know that people who listen to NPR and Jon Stewart are Liberals, then you already know everything about reasonableness and compromise that you’re going to learn in this lifetime.  So save yourself a giant waste of time and move along.

So the question for those of us who remain is, am I a Liberal?  A famous Winston Churchill misquote (though based on actual quotes from some French dudes) is: “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”  There is something to be said for that line of thought, I suppose.  In American society at least (and I suspect in most Western countries), the older you get, the more you have to deal with monetary reality, and the less you have to deal with sociological pronouncements from academics.  With that sort of climate shift, is it any wonder that you might start caring more about the amount of money that the government removes from your pocket than the disadvantaged members of our society who eventually receive it?  You perhaps have a family now, and you require money to keep them safe and happy, and more money to send your children to school (maybe a private school, and certainly college), and then what about retirement?  You want to take my money and give it to “poor” people?  By God, if you keep on dipping into my wallet like this, I’ll be poor!

So I’m not saying I don’t understand it.  I’m just saying I don’t buy into it.  I know that there are people in our very own “richest country in the world” who are starving to death, and it isn’t because they’re lazy, because they’ve been coddled for too long on our cushy welfare system, or because of some defect of character.  Those who believe this—even very quietly, to themselves—remind me of Ebeneezer Scrooge ... not the fellow from the countless theatrical adaptations, but the fellow from Dickens’ own pen:  Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?  Ah, but Scrooge, many can’t go there, and many would rather die.  Well, if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

This seems to follow, not only very logically, but inevitably, from the proposition that I’m taxed too much.  I’m sorry, but as long as there are people in the streets of my city starving to death, I’m not being taxed too much.  And we can argue that the government’s vast inefficiency is swallowing the money instead of it getting to the people who need it, and we can argue about whether the homeless poeple you see on the streets are actually starving or whether, no, they’re quite well off: they can make more beggging than many people do in an honest day’s work, and blah de blah de blah.  That’s just fiddly bits.  The basic question is whether you believe that you, as someone who is most likely middle-class, as someone who most likely has never had to wonder where your next meal might come from, bear any financial responsibility whatsoever for those less fortunate than you, or whether you believe in saying “fuck ’em.”  You can dress it up and call it capitalism and wax eloquent about it being the foundation of our system, but, in the end, it really is that simple.  At least to me.

So, yeah, I reckon I’m a Liberal, and an old Liberal at that.  I suppose that makes me brainless.  Of course, if you followed that link about Churchill’s misquote above, you perhaps read this: “Surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35!”  So at least I’m in good company.  (Not that I was a Conservative at 15, or any other age.  But you know what I mean.)

Now, I’m not entirely a Liberal, of course.  Hardly anyone ever is entirely this or that.  For instance, I’m in favor of the death penalty, and I’m opposed to gun control (for the most part).  But, sure, I’m mostly a Liberal, and I don’t really have any problem with admitting that.  So, as a Liberal, the Conservative is my arch-nemesis, right?

But that’s just silly.  Let’s take my friend Alain.  Now, Alain might say that he’s more of a Libertarian, but, then, I might say that too, and that hardly demonstrates the great political divide between us.  So let’s just stick with the classic right/left thing.  Do I think that Alain is a moron?  No, of course not.  Do I even think that he is a heartless bastard?  I emphatically know that he is not: honestly, he wouldn’t be a friend of mine if he was.  He’s just someone who has a different perspective than I do.  And you may recall that I even pointed out that I understood his perspective.

On the other hand, Alain is one of those people who knows that I’m a Liberal based on my Tv and radio choices.  And that I really don’t understand.  Alain tried to explain to me once why he thought Jon Stewart was a Liberal, even though he makes fun of everyone.  “When he makes fun of Liberals, he makes fun of what they say.  When he makes fun of Conservatives, he makes fun of what they believe.”  Now, for the life of me, I can’t see this on the show.  Obama is someone I supported very strongly for president, but he hasn’t always lived up to my expectations, and Stewart has always been there to point those things out as well, often quite unflatteringly.  He has roasted Nancy Pelosi just as mercilessly as Karl Rove, and lampooned MSNBC every bit as much as Fox.  This past week, he interviewed Obama directly.  When Obama tried to weasel his way out of a question Stewart had to put to him, Stewart came right back and asked the question again.  Did he fail to push as hard as perhaps some Conservatives would have liked?  No doubt.  But he’s played that same softball with many Conservatives as well: the man’s just a polite interviewer.

So I watch Jon Stewart because he’s an equal opportunity critic.  Because he’s sane and reasonable in his interviews, even when talking to people who are decidedly not (check out his Rod Blagojevich interview for a prime example).  Because he calls people out for saying the opposite of what they said yesterday and denying they ever said it, and then runs the tape to prove their hypocrisy.  And he does that to everybody.

So when the man says “let’s hold a rally to restore sanity to political discourse,” I do think that’s a political statement, not a comedy show.  (Colbert is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)  And I think it’s a statement worth making.  And that’s why I ever so briefly wished I still lived in DC yesterday.  So that I could join the throngs of people making the bold statement: I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.

Maybe I’ll get a T-shirt.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chapter 7


Johnny wanted to answer her, but the mist—if it could still be called that—was thick over his mouth.  It was more like the consistency of jelly now, or vaseline: gooey on his bare skin, and cold and damp through his worn jeans.  It covered his eyes as well; looking at Larissa now was like staring through curved glass that had some sort of greasy film on it.  But sight and touch were still dulled slightly, as were his other three senses (or seven, if Larissa was right, which she generally was).  This strange new, otherworldly sense had peaked, and it was receding now, but there was still enough of it left to make his normal senses seem diminshed.  He tried to hold on to it, knew that he needed to do one last thing, and knew that he didn’t know what it was.  Maybe he could sense the answer, the same way he had known what to do with the mist ...

He stepped back.  Not with his body, exactly; more like with his being.  And as he stepped back, the mist, or gel, or whatever it was—still retaining the rough human shape it had acquired from being spread over his body—was ejected forward, and now there were two figures in the box.  Johnny shook his head, feeling woozy, and stumbled backward.  The cardboard box was now a bit crowded with two of them standing in it, and Johnny tripped over the side behind him and half stepped, half fell out of the box.  Catching himself with one hand, and now keenly feeling the cold air on his bare skin, he looked up at the figure still in the box.  It was completely clothed (unlike himself), and even had gloves.  A wide-brimmed hat kept the face and neck in shadow.  It seemed to be a man, but it was difficult to tell, as the clothing seemed lumpy in odd places.  There were two tiny glints that must have been light reflecting off eyes—the bare light bulb was very close above the figure’s head, so that almost made sense, although there was no reason the brim of the hat, large as it was, should keep the face pooled in that much shadow.  When it spoke, the voice was raspy, like ripping paper.

“What day is it?” it asked.

Johnny just stared.  Larissa spoke cautiously, unsure who or what she was addressing.  “It’s Tuesday.”

“What day of the month?” it asked, more sharply.

Johnny shook his head and looked at Larissa again.

“September the 10th,” said Larissa.

The figure flexed its workman’s gloves.  “I’m early,” it rasped.  It stepped out of the box and turned to look at Johnny.  “Thank you,” it said.  “For bringing me through.”  Johnny tried to extricate himself from the box with little success.  He looked up at the strange, misshapen figure.  Its shirt was cornflower blue.  Its pants were denim coveralls.  Its shoes were crinkled black boots turned down at the tops.  Johnny stared at it in fascination.  The figure turned to glance briefly at Larissa, then strode down the alley.  When it reached the sidewalk, it turned left and was lost from view.

section break

Johnny was still on the ground, with one bare foot in the cardboard box and one arm behind him holding himself up off the ground.  “That was ...”  Johnny trailed off.  There was no reasonable way to complete this sentence.  Larissa stood, staring at the end of the alleyway with her lips just barely parted, as if frozen in the act of one of her diatribes.  For several seconds, no one moved.

Larissa closed her mouth and turned back to Johnny.  Weirdly, her eyes held no surprise, or fear, or even curiosity.  She just studied Johnny, as she always did, but he began to feel uncomfortable.  “Um, yeah,” he floundered.  “Maybe I should ...”  Abruptly a shiver coursed through his body.

“You’re cold,” Larissa pointed out.

Johnny wasn’t sure that was the ultimate source of the shiver, but Larissa wasn’t wrong either.  Late summer it might be, but it was night, and there was a September breeze kicking.  He disentangled himself from the box and began to put his socks and shoes back on.

Suddenly the ambient light dimmed a bit.  Johnny looked up, confused.  Larissa turned back to the mouth of the alley, which was now pitch dark for some reason.  There was a huge snort from that direction, half cranky old steam engine and half large hoofed herbivore.  Johnny froze, his laces pulled tight.  From the corner of his eye he saw Larissa’s head twitch.  But his focus was on the darkness that had swallowed their only exit back to the real world, the world where matronly whiskey-swilling old ladies might know more about you than was strictly logical and white-clad street preachers might grab your head and make freaky pronouncements and your whole unchanging life might seem more like a weird dream, but the real world nonetheless, where you did not cover yourself in mist and spit out bizarre otherworldly travelers.  That world now seemed very far away indeed.

Suddenly there were twin beams of red light in the darkness, and a heavy, sharp metallic click.  The red lights grew brighter, swinging back and forth, and the metallic click was repeated.  Whatever it was, it was advancing.

And then, the sound, coming from far away.  At first, it seemed like a police siren, a very familiar, comfortable sound, but then it fell when it should have risen, or perhaps rose when it should have fallen, and the real and the unreal abruptly diverged.  This was not the howl of a responding black-and-white, oh no.  This was the howl of an honest-to-god wolf, a huge beast with a deep barrel chest, and the sound carried the mournful wail of a deep winter wind embedded inside it, so that Johnny knew this was a white wolf, a great white wolf with ice-blue eyes, standing on a hillside overlooking his domain while the snowflakes eddied and swirled all around him ...

The red lights swung around and disappeared, and there was a profusion of clicks and another great snort.  The lonely, wintry howl was repeated, perhaps a bit closer this time, and there was a squeal from the end of the alley, a whine of clear frustration that was again partly mechanical and partly organic, with just a hint of heavy grunt at the end, and suddenly they could see the street again.  A couple walked past the end of the alley, holding hands.  They unconsciously huddled closer together when passing the opening on their right, as non-street-people usually did.  It was such a slice of ordinary human life that Johnny almost became convinced that he had just suffered an elaborate hallucination.  He turned to Larissa in confusion, his hands still holding his laces taut.

Larissa spoke rapidly but very cripsly.  “I think,” she said, “it is time to leave now.”

Johnny snatched at his remaining clothes on the ground.  “Fuckin’ A and hell yeah to that, sister.”

They fled.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Buying a house sucks

It's a nice house, it really is. I'd give you a link, but the thing about buying a house is that they they take it down off all the sites trying to sell it, and then you can't see the pictures any more. But trust me, it's a very nice house. Of course, after the pleasure of finding a house you really want to buy, then there's the horror of having to deal with the mountain of paperwork that accompanies a half-million-dollar transaction. And, apparently, if you actually read all that paperwork and ask intelligent questions about it, this brands you as some sort of freak. I know my real estate agent and his "transaction coordinator" (whatever the fuck that is) and my loan officer already hate me. And I look forward to meeting many new people involved in the process who will all hate me too.

Also we're still looking for our lost cat, and our new kitty has a respiratory infection, and it looks like our scaly child may have been snakenapped, and it appears that I have some bizarre disease now, of which the ultimate consequence is that I'm typing with roughly nine fingers. So if you're wondering why I'm not posting anything here, now you know. Not that you cared, I'm sure. But I thought I'd tell you anyway.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chapter 6 (concluded)

Continuing down 18th, he felt mildly guilty about his lie to the guitarist, but he certainly hadn’t been about to admit that he’d been drinking to dull the feeling of something invisible pulling at his guts.  And apparently it had worked: he had felt nothing like it all morning.  He glanced covertly at Larissa to see if she was studying him, but she was just walking and watching life on the street.  He decided to do the same.

And so down the busy avenue, a liesurely stroll in the warming late morning air.  When the lunch rush came out, they stopped to work the crowds and pick up a bit of coin.  Then they got some burgers at a fast food joint and continued wandering down the road.

By this point, they had left Adams Morgan and drifted into Dupont Circle.  When they hit New Hampshire, they turned right and soon arrived at the eponymous traffic circle.  It wasn’t really big enough to be called a park, but there were trees, and a few street people: Parking Jimmy, snoozing on a bench, Saint Thomas, who was one of the few street people who was well and truly crazy, muttering to himself as always, and the new face everyone had been talking about at court two nights ago, whose name Johnny had misplaced.  He turned to Larissa for help.  “Drew,” she murmured.  Johnny introduced himself.  Drew was white, older, still a bit skittish.  “Anything you need,” Johnny said to the new guy.  “Either of us would be happy to help out.”  Drew thanked them nervously, then moved on.  Johnny and Larissa relaxed on the bench with Jimmy for a bit—he cracked an eye at them, but didn’t really wake up—then decided to move on themselves.

They headed down Massachusetts, which would eventually take them to the construction site where the new Convention Center was almost finished.  Security around the site was pretty tight, but it was occasionally possible to sneak inside for a night, and, if this breeze kept up, they might appreciate being out of it.  But somewhere in the midst of evening rush hour Johnny suddenly felt it again.

He stopped abruptly on the sidewalk.  People jostled him, some muttering unfriendly remarks.  Larissa pulled him out of the flow of foot traffic.  Leaning against a building, he looked down the street.  It was a bit to the right of the new Convention Center, which he could just make out the top of from here.  Probably a bit south of Mount Vernon Place, then ...

He glanced over at Larissa.  She was studying him again.  “I think we need to go back to Chinatown,” he said softly.  She simply nodded.

section break

They spent the next several hours following the occasional tugs that Johnny felt.  By the time dusk fell, they had crisscrossed Chinatown’s six or so square blocks perhaps a dozen times.  They got as far east as St. Mary’s, as far south as the Verizon Center, back west to the Convention Center (the current one, not the new one they were building), back north to Mount Vernon Square.  The feeling was always just out of reach, and maddeningly intermittent.  Any thought of dinner was forgotten.  Occasionally, people they knew called out greetings; they ignored them.  They tried alleys, roads, parks, anywhere they could get to without risking unwanted attention.  Each time they came up empty.

“What time is it?” Johnny asked finally.

Larissa again gazed skyward.  “About 9:30,” she pronounced.  It had been dark for a while now, but of course the city lights were still bright.  The night air was slightly nippy.  At the moment they were walking south on 5th, just crossing I Street.

“I dunno,” Johnny said, frustration oozing out of his pores.  “I can’t seem to ...”  He stopped.  Larissa stopped as well.

To describe it as a “tug” was no longer sufficient.  This was as if he had been transformed into iron and placed near a giant magnet.  His teeth seemed to be vibrating.  He felt like his heels were being pulled along the sidewalk.  He found he was unconsciously leaning backwards to balance himself.  Glancing at Larissa, he found her staring at him with widened eyes.

“I gotcha now, you bastard,” he muttered triumphantly.

He began walking, faster and faster.  Just before they reached H Street an alley appeared on their right, and the pulling sensation abruptly vanished.  Johnny turned to Larissa.  “I think,” he said breathlessly, “that we’re finally here.”

The First Gate

Johnny and Larissa turned the corner and went down the filthy dead-end alleyway.  Several restaurants had back doors or side doors that let out on the alley and lots of food trash went out to sit, calling to the rats and the cats and the bluebottle flies.  The smell was nauseating, but in a mercurial way, constantly shifting:  one thread out of the melange—say, spaghetti—might predominate for a split second, giving that strong marinara scent that might almost be enticing, and then immediately it would get swallowed up in a soup of egg foo yung, refried beans, Korean barbecue, and sour milk, nearly making you retch.

Larissa’s nose wrinkled, and her hand rose to cover it.  Johnny seemed oblivious to the olfactory assault; his eyes were fixed on a lone light bulb burning at the end of the alley, over the last door on the right.  Slowly he picked his way towards it.  Larissa followed.

When he reached the light he could see what had drawn him there.  There was a single wisp of mist, curling around the light as if caressing it.  It floated slowly, unusual at first only in its solitude, but Johnny just stared, unmoving, as the minutes ticked by.  And, as the time elapsed, they could see that it was completely abnormal mist, because it would slowly float to the edge of the illumination provided by the bulb, then it would turn around and float in the other direction.  And when it reached the opposite edge of the light, it would turn again and start back.  Except, of course, that mist didn’t turn around.  That was ... preposterous.

After a few circuits back and forth, Johnny reached out to touch the mist as it went by.  He heard a gasp and a truncated plosive over his shoulder; Larissa’s concern for Johnny was obviously at war with her sense of detachment.  But he wasn’t worried.  He knew the mist wasn’t there to hurt him.  Actually, the mist wasn’t there for him at all ... he was there for it, in some way.

As his hand passed through, the mist swirled around it, seeming to cling to the short hairs on the back of his hand.  As Johnny slowly pulled his hand back, the mist seemed to want to follow it, briefly, then it pulled away from him, almost as if with great effort, and went back to its original spot.  The feel was not particularly unusual—cool and moist, as you would expect mist to be—and yet there was something that Johnny felt beyond feeling, something that he was aware of on a level that he didn’t even know he possessed, as if the whole concept of five senses was a lie and he actually had seven, or eleven, or nineteen.

“It is,” agreed Larissa, talking fast now.  “You have nine, not including your sense of time and the homeostatic interoceptive senses ... visual, auditory, vestibular, olfactory, gustatory, somatic, thermoceptive, kinesthetic, and nocioceptive.  The concept of five senses was advanced by Aristotle, who of course also believed that there were only four elements, or five if you include aether, and nobody believes that drivel any more, but for some reason the five senses thing just ...”  She trailed off into silence and Johnny returned his attention to the mist.  Curiously, since he had touched it, it was just hanging in the air, not pacing back and forth as it had been before.  He stepped forward and looked at it, put his hand out but didn’t actually touch it this time, just held it close, mere millimeters away, and opened up a door in his mind and reached out.

Then Larissa was shaking his shoulder, with some determination, and he looked lazily back at her, curious but not worried, and she was talking again, in that college-professor way she had that was so weirdly incongruous in a girl of her whatever-age-she-was, and he couldn’t really make out the words she was saying because his hearing was turned down because this other sense, this new sense, was cranked way up, and he was cocking his head to one side now, in what Larissa, judging from her expression, found to be a very un-Johnny-like way, and he spoke, or at least his mouth opened and words came out: “I have to put the mist in the box.”

Larissa looked down.  There was a large cardboard box, open, empty, and clean, which in itself was bizarre beyond belief in this food-strewn alley.  She looked back at the mist.  She looked back at Johnny.  She enunciated very carefully.  “That’s just silly.”

Johnny smiled, a big dopey smile, and he nodded.  “Yup,” he agreed happily.  “Very silly.”  Then he began to push and scoop and swirl the mist over to the box.  And because it clung to his skin ever so briefly after his hand passed through it, he actually made some small progress, pulling the mist gradually over to the box.  Once he reached the cardboard, he took off his coat.  Larissa pointed out that it was getting cold.  Ignoring her, he took off his outer shirt, and then his tee-shirt.  His nipples puckered in the night air, but he couldn’t actually feel it.  He kicked off his boots and then pulled off his socks.  He actually had his hands in the waistband of his trousers when he remembered Larissa.  He looked back at her.  Her eyes were big and round.  He felt he ought to blush at this point, but somehow that didn’t matter.  “That’s probably close enough,” he said softly, still smiling.  And then he stepped into the box.

He pulled the mist to him, then squatted down on his haunches.  Immediately he felt a strong urge to urinate, but he suppressed it.  He began to spread the mist over his body—that was really the only way to describe it—and it felt moist and sort of squishy and vaguely ... organic ... and both comforting and a little bit gross at the same time.  Mostly it felt right.  And although it hadn’t seemed like there was very much of it—just one little wisp of mist, after all—for some reason he was able to keep spreading it, and spreading it, until every inch of him seemed to be covered.  Once he was finished, he looked down, concentrating on a spot on the bottom of the cardboard box between his feet, and his eyes began to burn, as if he had something stuck in his eye, only it was both eyes, and instead of blurring his vision, he could see everything much more clearly now.  Everything was both brighter and darker and the world made so much more sense ...

When his head cleared, he was standing again, and the mist was thick and unmoving on his skin and his pants.  His feet were together, arms stretched out to either side, as if he were portraying a crucifiction victim.  Larissa was staring at him, open-mouthed, her eyes still large.  “You’re wearing someone,” she said.