this is drivel

Sunday, January 1st, 2006

It’s customary for the O-Folk to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, watch rented movies, eat snack food and play board games until a few minutes before midnight, when we pop the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine so we can toast the new year when the ball drops. This year we did the same, except we didn’t play the one board game we have in the house, which is just as well as it’s the “Trivial Pursuit” game nobody knows the answers to.

Barb baked some pigs-in-a-blanket, egg rolls and pot stickers in batches big enough to satisfy the voracious appetites of our two growing boys, who carried their heavily-loaded plates to the living room where we popped a tape of Dodgeball into the player and had a good laugh. Vince Vaughn is an average Joe who runs a gym called “Average Joe’s Gym” that caters to screw-ups, nerds and weirdoes. Ben Stiller is the sado-masochistic owner of Globo Gym across the street, who tries to foreclose on Vaughn’s place so he can bulldoze it out of pure spite. The stage is set for Vaughn’s nerds and screw-ups to win enough money at the international dodgeball championship to save Vaughn’s gym. It’s just the right kind of film to watch for a few laughs while sitting on the floor of your living room, stuffing your face with junk food.

After Dodgeball we decided to keep the movie marathon going and popped in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This movie falls into the morass of movies I regret having seen, a movie that makes me wince when I recall any part of it. It’s a sad thing when one of your favorite books is made into a bad movie; just ask Barb how she feels about Simon Birch.

When I watch a movie based on a book I’ve read, I have to admit I’m often distracted by trying as hard as I can not to reflect on the book. If I’ve read the story before, I inevitably compare the film to the preconceived notion I have in my head as I’m watching, which isn’t fair. A movie should be judged on its own merits, and I’m happy to report that’s quite easily done with the movie of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because this movie has no merits as far as I can tell — the wit’s sterile, the humor’s flat, the pacing plods, and there’s no chemistry between the characters. An accomplished cast was assembled to play parts made so flat and boring I can hardly stand to recall it now. With any luck, director Garth Jennings will never be allowed by anybody to make any other movie, much less a sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide.

All Together Now!

John and Janice flew in to Madison from far-flung Arkansas to visit Jim and Sue for the weekend, and my mother drove down to see them all. John and Jim are Mom’s brothers, and I think the last time they were all together was when their father, my Grandpa Fred, died about five or six years ago. Barb and I and the boys were invited to join them for a New Year’s dinner, and then we all piled on the big sofa in the living room for a group photo.

Here you go: Jim is second from the left in the back row, John is first on the right in the front, Mom is right behind John. And then there are a bunch of other people. Oh, heck, I guess I’d better name them all, before I lose the one brain cell that can remember all this information: Sean, obviously, is standing in the back on the left, then Jim, then Jim’s daughter Carrie and her boyfriend, Darrin, then Carrie’s brother, Mikey. Mom is seated on the right, next to her is her partner in crime, Tom, Barb is between Tom and Susan. I’m on the floor in front of Susan, Tim’s next to me, Janice is next, and John on the floor on the right.

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

Burned the toast this morning. Curses! I pride myself on toasting the bread until it’s just the right shade of golden brown, but the kitten distracted me with an especially impressive turn-and-flip. I should have heard the alarm in my forebrain warning me to turn my attention back to the toaster, but I continued to dangle the feather in front of her until I heard the crackle of perfectly golden-brown crust turning black. I dashed to the kitchen to rescue my breakfast, knowing as I did that I was too late. If there’s anything more pathetic than burned toast, it’s probably hunching over the sink after burning it, trying to scrape it clean with a knife.


We received a counter-offer from the seller of the house we’re interested in, so we met with Wilma today to submit our own counter-offer. Or counter-counter-offer, I guess. And if he fires back with another counter-offer, I guess that would be a counter-counter-counter-offer. And when the beetles have a battle in a puddle that’s been bottled, we call that a tweedle beetle puddle bottle battle. Sometimes, English can be so comically precise that it’s hard not to end up sounding like Doctor Seuss.

Barb woke up with the tiniest, slightly grim curl at one corner of her mouth. After making our offer for the house yesterday her mind was on household matters, and she tossed and turned last night because her brain was spinning, a result of falling asleep while trying to plan out when to call for our possessions now held in storage, where we’re going to put fifteen years worth of accumulated household flotsam, and how we’re going to sort through it once we’ve stacked it up. In our spare time, we’ll likely spend every weekend that’s not raining between spring and autumn putting our cast-offs in the driveway for our never-ending garage sale.

Normally I’d be the one lying awake all night, preoccupied by all this stuff, but it was her turn this week. I’ll take next week.


I woke this morning to the sound of rain, and not just a little rain, but pouring rain that roared against the roof like a truckload of gravel and gushed from the downspouts, flooding the lawns. Tim was disgusted when he saw it through the patio door as he ate his breakfast. “This happens everywhere we go,” he carped. “In Misawa they bragged, Oh, the winters are so cold and we get twenty feet of snow, and the winters there sucked! And now we’re in Wisconsin, where you said we’d freeze our butts off, and it’s raining in January!” I’m thinking most people around here aren’t as unhappy with the weather as Tim is.

I love waking up to the sound of rain. I think if I had one of those alarm clocks that woke me up every morning to the sound of rain it’d drive me crazy in short order, but the real thing every so often is quite a treat, even in January.

Although I slept in until almost eight o’clock this morning, I stretched out for a nap around three this afternoon. It’s all Barb’s fault. She curled up for a nap shortly beforehand, as she usually does on her days off. Luckily for me, the powerful sleepyhead rays she emits while sleeping are easily deflected; all I have to do is open a book and hold it up between us, but this afternoon I tried the same trick with a thin newspaper and it wasn’t enough. I quickly became drowsy, so I plumped up my pillow and laid down to “rest my eyes,” as Dad used to put it.

I had only begun to wander into the trans-somatic world, where people speak without verbs and I can’t read any of the headlines, when I was suddenly shocked awake by a scream of TOUCHDOWN!” that cannonballed through the thin bedroom wall. Sounded as though the Badgers were doing well in the Florida bowl game. My nap effectively over, I got up and went back to the living room to scribble a bit more on a crossword I was working earlier.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2006

The O-Folk gathered ‘round the television last night to watch The Manchurian Candidate — the original movie version with Frank Sinatra, not the new one with Denzel Washington. I first saw this movie some time ago and I remember liking it, but now that I’ve seen it again, I can’t remember why. It’s not what I’d call a well-executed story: cold-war communists want to assassinate a presidential candidate. Let’s see, what’s the easiest way to do that? Use the holes in the immigration system to send in their own guys to sit in the window with a rifle? Booor-ing! Let’s capture a squad of soldiers on patrol, brainwash them, fix it so the biggest jerk of them all receives the medal of honor, then return him to the States where he becomes a homicidal maniac but somehow escapes the notice of the authorities. Seems plausible.

I’ve seen Sinatra in one or two other movies before and liked his loose, easy-going style, but his attitude and the way he talks makes him sound like a beatnik in this movie when he’s supposed to be an Army major and a life-long military brat. Sort of clashes, you know? Janet Leigh appears briefly to give Ol’ Blue Eyes a shoulder to cry on, but she doesn’t get to do much else. Angela Lansbury, of all people, seems to be the one star in this movie who gets down deep into her part, a shrewish wife to a spineless U.S. Senator, and lives it so you want to hate her.

On a technical note, the movie’s cinematography sucked. I saw at least three scenes in which an actor leaned into the camera and dropped out of focus for so long my eyes got tired from squinting.

One star. Rent the Denzel Washington version if you’re dying to see a movie about a brainwashed assassin.


There’s a video rental store in the strip mall next to the grocery store in beautiful downtown Cottage Grove, but it was closed when we moved here, and I mean closed as in forcibly shut down with a notice signed by the sheriff posted on the front door. Never found out why. Don’t think we even read the notice, only stood with our noses pressed against the window looking at all those videos on the shelves, whining like a dog whose bone was just out of reach.

A week or two ago, however, we stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner, and noticed the video store opened for business once again! Hot dog! I trolled the aisles while Barb picked up membership cards (she does all the family’s admin work). Row after row of unrecognizable titles demonstrated our almost complete unfamiliarity with the most popular movies of the last few seasons. Being stationed in Japan limited our choices a tiny bit, but even after our return to the States we didn’t see many films, due partly to the unbelievable cost of going to a show and partly to the fact that Hollywood’s been putting out a lot of crap movies lately. The overwhelming number of boobie movies alone backed me up on that.


We had two three-day weekends in a row, and where did we go? What did we do? We stayed in our apartment. We sat around, reading books, or newspapers. We just hung out. Garden slugs in a greenhouse garden were whirling dervishes compared to us.

Okay, that’s not nearly entirely true. We spent a whole day last weekend and again the weekend before that visiting with relatives, so we’ve been social, and we rented movies, so we went out, sort of. Mostly, though, we concentrated on nothing — no ideas, no work, nothing at all. Sean felt guilty about doing nothing, but I’m pretty sure the rest of us enjoyed it, even needed it, quite a lot.

This morning absolutely, positively felt like the first back-to-work day of the week, from the moment I woke up early to the moment I discovered we’d forgotten to run the dishwasher last night and I had to wash the coffee pot by hand, to the long commute into town through a gray fog and cold drizzle. The morning went by in a flash, though — check and file, compose and mail, answer a half-dozen calls and run to the loan department for paperwork — so it didn’t turn out to be as bad as it threatened to be.

The hardest thing about returning to work from the holiday weekends: Nothing to munch on. For the past three weeks, there has been a bottomless Christmas cookie/candy combination package on the countertop. My stomach has become so used to being constantly bombarded with confections that it was grumbling all day long today, even after lunch.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

I got the Cyrcle’s version of Red Rubber Ball stuck in my head this morning. First time in months I’ve had to resort to humming the theme from Gilligan’s Island to fix something like that.


Somewhat to the dismay of our realtor, Barb and I made the final counter-offer on a house last night. There wasn’t much to counter-offer about, just one final plea to give us a closing date a little closer to the end of our lease. The seller had already more or less told us heck no, but we figured it didn’t hurt to ask. That’s the kind of keen, analytical thinking we use when it comes to monumental financial decisions like this: “Doesn’t hurt to ask.” I heard Donald Trump works all his best deals with that philosophy. (Bet that’s the first time you’ve seen “Donald Trump” and “philosophy” in the same sentence.)

Even though we’ve owned a house once before, we had no idea what we were doing then, either, and depended on our realtor to give us the answers. Our realtor this time around is giving us a lot of coaching, too, but for some reason we’re acting a whole lot more like a couple of big, dumb goobers this time around. If we were to carry on like this just one day longer I’d be surprised if she didn’t block the doorway of her office, cross her arms and sternly order us to shit or get off the pot. I know that’s what I’d do.

We’ve been trying to figure out why it’s been so furshlugginer hard for us to make up our minds what kind of house we want this time around, and I think I may have come up with an answer: It’s the military’s fault. Not something ‘they’ conspired to do, but rather the military way of life rewired all our housing circuits. Fifteen years of scrambling from house to house desensitized us until we’ve been left with absolutely no idea what we like any more. Other people in stable surroundings get the time to develop a sense of style and decorum; we’ve made do with everything from conventional ranches to suburban boxes to cramped apartments to that expansive concrete-and-steel bunker in Japan. Along comes an opportunity to buy a beautiful little bungalow on a quiet street, but we’re too numb to jump at it.

In the end, though, everything worked out for the best. The seller, who must have the patience of a saint, agreed to the date we wanted for closing, and we agreed to his price. I can’t explain it. We close on the 28th of April. Bliss!


Even though it was foggy and drizzling this morning, we were more than a little surprised to pass through a thick cloud, which turned out to be smoke boiling from the chimney of a house next to the road. Faced with the decision either to sail on to work and hope we wouldn’t later read the headline FIRE KILLS FAMILY OF FIVE, or stop and make sure everybody was all right, I made a quick u-turn and doubled back.

Of course it wasn’t a matter of quickly knocking on the door to and babbling inanely; nothing is ever that easy (not even babbling inanely, as it turns out). No, first there was the matter of finding out how to get to the house. I turned into a subdivision only to find out that the smoking house wasn’t part of it, and there was no way to get to it from the road we were on. I had to return to the main road, drive a hundred yards or so past the smoking house, then u-turn again and creep along the shoulder until we spotted the driveway, which was just barely wide enough for the car and a steep drop from the road.

It was a long driveway that had no apparent sidewalk to the house. There was absolutely no sidewalk to the front door; it opened onto steps which descended to the lawn and came to a full stop. We found a narrow walk to the back door, but couldn’t find a doorbell, and the back door was an entrance to a breezeway which may or may not have been home to a dog, a big one to judge by the bulky chain hanging off the railing. Neither of us wanted to go into the breezeway to find out how big the possible dog may have been.

So I knocked on the back door and Barb rang the bell from the front until a very loud and very big dog, inside the house, thank god, was wound up so tight he was leaping at the windows, barking and slobbering. That finally brought the owner to the front door, fresh out of the shower with a towel on her head, flustered at having strangers at her door at seven in the morning. “What’s all the commotion?” she asked. Barb tried to explain that we were worried about how much foul-smelling smoke was coming from her chimney. Of course there was smoke, she said; she built a fire in the fireplace.

“But it’s a lot of smoke, and it smells pretty bad,” Barb said, sounding apologetic and worried at the same time. Then we excused ourselves and got the heck out of Dodge. It may have been a goofy thing to do, but if FIRE KILLS FAMILY OF FIVE had been on the news later tonight we would have both drunk ourselves into homeless winos in a month.


I wonder if there’s anything that seems quite as pretentious as trimming one’s beard and tash (wait, I can think of one thing right off the bat: Referring to yourself as “one”). If you’ve grown hair on your face, though, it’s something you have to fuss over every day if you don’t want to look like a vagrant or a SOS pad. A beard can sprout wild patches in as little as a day, and a moustache is always trying to shoot off in the wrong direction, requiring a snip and a combing to line things up. Even then the odds are good you never get it just right.

I brought a pair of scissors from the bathroom after my shower and set them on top of the bureau, to do a quick trim while Barb was in the shower. My mistake was in not jumping straight to the bedroom after she was finished. I was writing some drivel when she came out and kept going a few minutes more; by the time I got up, she was out of the bedroom, Tim was in the bathroom, the scissors were gone and the door to the bathroom was locked.

“Ah, Dearest?” I cooed to my darling bride. “You didn’t put the scissors back in the bathroom by any chance, did you?” And it turned out she had. This is the same woman who leaves the bottle of 409 spray next to the coffee maker for days after she wipes the countertop. She’s a dear, but sometimes she makes even less sense than I do, quite an accomplishment for anybody.


Humming the theme song from Gilligan’s Island didn’t help; I had Red Rubber Ball stuck in my head all day, though I had the radio on and tuned to stations that played songs I couldn’t stand. I even resorted to turning up Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and humming along with the tune. It offered a temporary reprieve, but Red Rubber Ball came back the moment Neil’s crooning faded from my memory. I guess I’ll let it run its course, like the flu.

Thursday, January 5th, 2006

Home Sweet Home?

Here you go, a fresh link to some photos of what will, in four months’ time, become the O-Home. Try to ignore the decorating scheme; Barb and I have somewhat different tastes when it comes to household décor. And Barb wants to paint; so does Tim. So what you’ll see if you click on the photo won’t look much like the house after we repaint and clutter every corner, but at least you’ll have an idea what it looked like before we infested it. I’ll collect more snapshots when I follow the housing inspector around next Monday. Watch this space.

I half-expected that my mind would be a-tizzy all night long, spinning over the news from our realtor that we were once again going to be home owners, but it didn’t happen. I slept like a baby, even after trying to figure out how we’ll pay for everything (I’m not sure; I may never know. I try to pay attention when the realtor and the loan officer explain it to me, but ask me for details ten minutes later and it’s all smoke & mirrors), and after plotting calendar dates for the delivery of the household goods we have stored in warehouses across the States ... and then the alarm was bleeping. I had slept as if nothing bothered me. Amazing.

But as I drifted off last night, I got to thinking: I guess now I’ll have to look for a damn job that pays a little more. Not that I’m getting a lousy paycheck now, heck no. It covers the bills, and then some, but after that monthly mortgage payment kicks in, we’ll be dining almost exclusively on fish heads and rice scrounged from the dumpster of the local McDonald’s.

Oh gosh, kidding! We’re eating fish heads now! We love fish heads! And, as everybody knows, nothing compliments a plate full of freshly-broiled fish heads than mounds of reheated rice. Yum! I was thinking of looking for a larger paycheck in order to ensure we continue to enjoy these culinary delights.

Have you noticed that one problem with jobs that come with higher pay is they also come with heaps of responsibility? What’s up with that? I’m perfectly happy with the job I have now: filing papers, writing correspondence and mailing it, sending faxes of my butt to members of congress is all the responsibility I’m looking for at this stage in my life. Why can’t there a job like mine that’ll let me bring home eighty, eighty-five grand? Huh? Why not?

It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the market is flooded by workers with a skill set nearly identical to mine, could it? Let’s see, I can read and write in English, I can type, I can use Microsoft Word. Whoo, talk about competitive! If you were looking for somebody with skills like that, why wouldn’t you want to pay me upwards of eight dollars an hour? (You might consider my keen analytical skills, too.)


Tim’s about the happiest web-head in America — the DDR RAM he ordered earlier this week came in the mail today. That’s computer memory, don’t you know. He bought enough of it to make the computer run so fast he can now chat and blow up notional crap at the same time. Science marches on.

Barb was amazed — not at the slick computer speed, but because Tim gets packages in four days, while she lives in some kind of postal black hole. Her mother mailed a package to her about a month ago and there had been no sign of it so far. It wasn’t the first time a box from mom didn’t make it here, and it puzzled the hell out of Barb.

Strangest part of this story is that the box from Barb’s mom was sitting on the stoop when we came in the door. Isn’t that called kismet?

Friday, January 6th, 2006

I’ve been listening to “Good Time And Great Oldies” on WOLX for about six months now. They seem to have a library of about three hundred tunes and they play about 150 of them incessantly, occasionally throwing in a few less-played songs so they can say, I suppose, that they’re not biased toward any one in particular.

During the day they customarily play only music from the 50’s and 60’s, with a smattering of tunes from the 70’s. In almost any case, I can name that tune in one note and reach for the volume to shut it off if I know it’s a stinker or has simply been so overplayed that I can’t stand to listen to it again. My taste in music is acquired, but my reaction to it is almost instinctive, occurring without much conscious thought at this point. It’s like swatting at mosquitoes.

The oddest aspect of this phenomenon is that I’ve come to enjoy quite a few songs I would never have looked for. Here, in no particular order, is a short list:

Ain’t Too Proud To Beg – The Temptations The opening line of this tune – I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go – always gets me right where I live. There’s no way I can turn it off.

Unchained Medley – The Righteous Brothers Long a favorite, this is a pop song unusual for the fact that I enjoy it more each time I hear it. Thank goodness they don’t overplay it.

Runaway – Del Shannon Okay, Del Shannon’s got an affected way of singing, and I usually hate that. Don’t reach for ‘a sound,’ just sing. And yet, I have to say his nasal, whiny soprano makes this song the epitome of 50’s pop. And it reminds me of scenes from American Grafitti.

Think – Aretha Franklin Everybody thinks Respect is Auntie Re’s best pop number, but everybody’s wrong. This is it.

The Shoop Shoop Song – Betty Everett Popularly known as “It’s in his kiss,” and arguably the finest example of 50’s doo-wop.

Burning Love – Elvis I came to appreciate Elvis only recently, and this was the song that threw the switch for me.

Build Me Up, Buttercup – The Foundations A lot of pop musicians sing songs about unrequited love, but nobody nailed it like this.

Rescue Me – Montella Bass I love the Motown sound, and this song is a near-perfect example of it.

Five O’Clock World – The Vogues I can’t explain why I like this song; it’s got so much that I dislike in other pop music. Too quirky by half, that almost-annoying ‘hep!’ repeated at the chorus, and yodeling! I can’t help turning it up and humming along with it, though.

When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge Horribly overplayed, and yet it still maintains a power over me.

Hang On, Sloopy – The McCoys One of the first songs I remember my Mom singing to me, so I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

Then there’s Wild Thing by The Troggs. Why just The Troggs? Why can’t they play the infinitely better Jimi Hendrix version at least once a week? No, the only Jimi Hendrix song they know is Purple Haze, a fine song but overplayed.

They also play a lot of songs that I used to enjoy listening to, but because of sheer overplay or changing tastes I can’t tolerate any longer. Anything by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones would fall into the overplayed category, and the treacle-sweet music of Bread would be an example of changing tastes.

The songs I’ve trained my arm to automatically snap off are all along the lines of I’m Into Something Good (or, for that matter, anything by Herman’s Hermits. How did those guys ever get a recording contract?).

Saturday, January 7th, 2006

We very nearly, but not quite, experienced a bright, rosy sunrise this morning. I mention it only because we’ve been living under a cast-iron overcast for almost three weeks now, and any sighting of the bright, firey ball in the sky is discussed in hushed tones that communicate disbelief, and sometimes imply that the person who saw it might be lying or bragging, maybe both.


NBC’s “controversial” new television series The Book Of Daniel was on last night, because Madison is nationally known as a hotbed of liberal-leaning, Satan-loving socialism. We eat this stuff up with a spoon.

I watched about an hour of the show, then retired to bed to read another chapter of a Teddy Roosevelt biography because the show was just another television “drama” in which the characters are all thrust into outrageous situations but never discuss them with one another. They raise their voices, they point, they shriek, they take snide, sarcastic pot-shots at one another, but they rarely try to work things out.

Right out of the gate, The Book Of Daniel tried so hard to be titillating: The story centers on Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest, whose wife is an alcoholic shrew. His daughter sells dope to support her desire for a better laptop, number one son is gay and number two son is a slut. His mom suffers from dementia and his father, who is critical of everything Daniel does, is having an affair with Daniel’s boss, the bishop with whom Daniel shares his Vicodin habit. Whew! Is that enough for you, or should I go on to the part where Daniel’s brother-in-law absconds with the parish school fund?

I guess this is all supposed to be quite engaging, but here’s what I don’t like about modern drama: In the stories that I like to read, the characters and the problems between them are introduced, tension builds until the story reaches a climax, at which point the tension breaks, the characters learn something, and the story moves to a resolution.

It seems to me that The Book Of Daniel is like most other common television dramas, which are like stories because they start with characters and conflict, but they substitute a lot of yelling for tension and they never reach a climax or resolve any problems. That’s not surprising, really, because most television shows replace characters with caricatures that have traits so blown out of proportion, meaningful resolution would be virtually impossible.

I have to say before wrapping this up that the one aspect of the show considered by many to be the most controversial was, if you ask me, the most boring: Jesus as depicted in The Book Of Daniel was a rather bland, dimensionless and in no way controversial character. I’m sure the idea to have Jesus physically appear seemed like a gold mine. The problem with putting a character on screen, though, is that the audience expects him to do something (well, I expect it; I’m only guessing the rest of the audience does, too), but Jesus doesn’t do anything except listen to Daniel. He really can’t, because it’s already controversial enough that he appears in person, so the idea doesn’t go anywhere.


Have you seen Syriana yet? Could you keep your eyes open through the nail-pulling scene? Wowzers, I couldn’t! The bad guy whipped out those evil-looking pliers, explained what he was going to do with them, and I said to myself, No way am I going to watch one second of this! Other than the nail-pulling, it was an engaging movie, well worth the twelve dollars I paid for a large popcorn and two junior drinks for me and my gal (she paid the ticket price, lord love her!), but it’s awfully convoluted. Don’t go to it expecting a simple plot. Most of the O-folk are smarter than the average bear (I’m not saying who the exception might be, but he’s got a beak sharp enough to cut diamonds with), but we were scratching our heads and exchanging notes all the way back to the car, trying to unravel all the sub-plots. Heck of a good movie, but dense.


We wanted to finish off the evening with a quick game of “Risk” but, as you may know, all our worldly possessions are in a matching set of big plywood boxes in a naval warehouse somewhere in the vicinity of Chicago. Lucky for us, Barb had a ten-dollar gift coupon for Toys R Us, where we picked up a brand-new “Risk” game. In keeping with family custom, I played to lose, Tim refused to take anything seriously, Sean took it too seriously, and Barb won the game.

Sunday, January 8th, 2006

Holy Flaming Ra! The sun came out this morning! I’m pretty sure it’s the sun; my memory of it is pretty dim. A ball of flame in the eastern sky so bright it hurts to look at it — the sun, right? And the sky looks clear enough that it might stay out all day, or at least all morning. Makes me want to spread a towel on the lawn and work on my tan, if only this weren’t January. The lawn is deceptively free of snow, even though the temps are too blatantly cold for tanning.


The chicken-pesto pizza at Angelo’s Pizzaria is so dangerously good that you’ll eat way too much of it if you’re not careful. On this, I speak from experience. As I waddled from the restaurant to the car I was more than a little afraid of suffering Technicolor dreams all night long, but I guess the pesto is made to a magic formula to prevent that, because I slept like a baby. Still full this morning, though; a glass of juice and a cup of coffee was all I needed, or wanted.


Another sign that I’m officially An Old Codger: There’s a Victoria’s Secret ad on television now that features about a half-dozen women doing a pole dance in skimpy lace underwear. If commercials like this had aired thirty years ago, a ten-man team of professional janitors with mops and buckets wouldn’t have been able to keep the drool off the floor of the room where I was glued to the set night and day. All I do now is squint at the set and shout, “Eat something!” with a disapproving scowl on my face. Damn kids these days.


One of the first memorable missteps I took as a young airman was when I told a panel of my superiors that my greatest ambition was to become a competent technician in my trade. In my mind, “competent” described people who developed their talents and worked as hard as they could to do their job well. However, my superiors took it to mean I wanted to be no better than average, and one of the senior NCOs gave me examples, top-heavy with superlatives, of how I should have described my goals. The problem with their method, as I see it, is that it’s misleading to describe my goals, my work or myself as the best of the best. I see myself as an ordinary guy doing ordinary work, but I’ll make sure it’s done completely and done well because the only job I wouldn’t want to do well is one that’s not necessary.

I’ve been trying to work out a better way to say that for years, and see where it’s gotten me. Blogger Tom Scharbach has written an essay on “The Joy of Ordinariness” that does a better job of it:

I realize that the extraordinary things I’ve done have been gifts. I grew and learned from having to work hard and am glad to have had the opportunity to push my limits. But I also know that what has been really valuable for and about me — and what has given me the greatest joy — is that I am so ordinary and do such ordinary things. (more)

Monday, January 9th, 2006

“I have not left the bathroom yet,” I said loudly to everybody in the house yesterday morning, even though they all had a perfectly good pair of eyes and could see I was contradicting myself. They knew what I meant, though. I would have peed a line on the floor at the threshold of the door if it would have kept the others out until I was done. Those are the measures I’m forced to take to guard my right to finish my morning toilet in a house that holds four grown adults and one complete bathroom.

The bathroom schedule will not get any easier at our new address. As I mentioned before, there is just one bathroom, so we’ll have to continue our agreed-upon morning schedule, and That Boy will have to stop locking the door whenever he goes in there, because some of us are old enough that there are times when we just can’t wait. Sharing is caring.

There’s an emergency back-up stool at the bottom of the basement stairs, so I shouldn’t complain much. We’ve talked about adding a shower stall to ease the load on the upstairs bath, but it’s been only seven years since we last remodeled a bathroom. We did a complete tear-out job, ripping out everything down to the sub-flooring and wall studs and installing dry wall, tiling, a sink and a tub. We’re not especially eager to repeat the experience, which means we’d have to hire a contractor to do the job, which further means we’d probably have to wait until the money tree we’re going to plant in the back yard is ready to bear fruit. Seems unlikely to happen for a while.

We not only compromised our original requirements to buy only a house with two bathrooms, we also disregarded the kitchen’s disturbing lack of a dishwasher. I have a nagging feeling that this, much more than a single bathroom, will test our family to its limits, although it may never come to a test. We spent this afternoon at the prospective O-Home, and Barb has already taken measurements of the under-counter space to find room for a dishwasher. She has high hopes that one will easily fit in a spot against the wall, harmony will be restored and the world will never cease to spin upon its axis.

We visited the soon-to-be O-Home this afternoon in the company of a building inspector, whom I followed around the outside and through all the rooms of the house. We discussed the house’s shortcomings in embarrassing detail, but when it came down to the bottom line there wasn’t much to complain about. The inspector was genuinely impressed at what a fine old home it was. Sometimes we know how to pick them.

Tim and Sean went along to scope the place out. They spent about five minutes, ten tops, examining the various rooms before they pronounced it a fit place for us to live. After that they were supremely bored and their mom had to stop them from breaking things when they tried to romp like puppies in the sitting room.

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

It was a quiet morning as I made myself breakfast, then sat down to look through the news headlines. I used to ask myself, as I opened the morning news each day, “Did the world blow up while I was asleep last night?” But then it went and blew up a few years ago, and I’m not especially interested in the aftermath any longer. Simpler things interest me much more deeply now: Where are we going to live? How are the kids doing in school? Will I find regularity today?

When I open a newspaper, I open the cartoon section first. It’s the one part of the paper that tells me what’s going on in the world and gets a chuckle out of me at the same time. After the comics, I got to the business section. Those are the guys running the world, so I figure I should pay at least at least a tiny bit of attention to what they want. Then I check the local section, because it’s about local stuff, and I live there. Finally, I might check the front page for breaking news, because occasionally that’s important, but most often it’s just a road accident, a plane crash, or some mouthy politician trying to hog the spotlight. My time is valuable, and there are internet web pages to surf through!

Speaking of mouthy people, was today National “Yell At Whoever Answers The Phone” Day? I ask because I got more than the usual number of people calling our department and handing me a great big crock o’ shitake mushrooms almost before I could finish my canned greeting. One guy was so abusive it was all I could do to ask him, “Please hold,” through clenched teeth. After about three of those I wanted to start with, “Hello, I’m just the guy answering the phones. Let me connect you with somebody who gets paid enough to listen to you yell at him.”

Wednesday, January 11th, 2006

Why’s it still spelled “Wednesday,” anyway? “Norange” became “orange,” “blau” became “blue,” “dork” became “Dave,” so why didn’t we invert the n and the d to make it “Wendsday” all those years ago, so it would look a lot more like it sounds? Were all the English-speaking scholars sick that week? That doesn’t make any sense; they could’ve just re-penciled it in on their calendars week after they all got better. Did they all die? That doesn’t make sense, either. If I were a peasant, taking over for all the scholars who perished in the Black Death or something, fixing ‘Wednesday’ would be at the top of my list. “Dudes! First thing we do: Change it to ‘Wendsday’ — that word is messed up.”

My best guess: A pack of rabid Vikings stopped scholars from carrying out a campaign of spelling reform by launching a public relations snit about the “War on Odin’s Day” that got a little out of hand. The scholars were all drawn and quartered by angry mobs, and the peasants who took over didn’t want to face anything like that, which is why we have words like “knight,” “doughnut” and “lasseiz-faire.”


“What shall I wear today?” I said out loud as I stepped up to our clothes closet this morning. Barb was in the room, but I wasn’t asking her; I was only thinking out loud. She gave up dressing me years ago, not because she gave me up as hopeless fashion disaster but because I became functionally color-coordinated by pairing up like colors and, when I couldn’t do that, wearing black trousers. Black trousers aren’t rocket science; they go with anything.

But I’ve become so predictable she answered me anyway: “One of your button-down shirts, a pair of dark trousers, your black belt and a tie.” Zing!

It’s not like I can wear much else; my employer doesn’t encourage a lot of creativity when it comes to the clothes I wear. I’m not complaining, because I’m allowed a lot more leeway with these guys than my previous employer allowed. Also, I’m a few years beyond the age when I wanted to go to work in sweats and sandals.


As you may or may not have heard, we had a bomb scare in downtown Madison today. Yikes! Excuse me, I meant to say “suspicious object” — nobody calls it a bomb any more. Cordon off the streets, bring in the robots and the guys in the green armored space suits, evacuate buildings and restrict movement through the capital, but don’t say the word “bomb,” it might start a panic.

(On a much fussier note, it’s a talented pipe bomb that can be suspicious. Usually it’s the police who are suspicious.)

Somebody saw a short, skinny balding guy drop a “suspicious object” into a manhole on East Wilson Street earlier this afternoon, and police found three more articles formerly known as a bomb; they removed three of them and detonated the fourth rather than remove it. This makes seven things-that-blow-up-but-aren’t-called-bombs discovered in downtown Madison in the past three months. Sometimes police say they’re all the work of the same guy, sometimes they say they’re unrelated. Either way, I wish they’d catch this guy.


How much time spent playing blow-‘em-up video games is too much? That was the topic of after-dinner discussion last night when Tim figured he could spend all his after-school time until we dragged him upstairs to dinner, and all his after-dinner time until he went to bed, goofing around in cyberspace. I don’t think there’s a set amount of time, but I’m sure there’s too much. You might be surprised to hear that not everybody in our family agrees; but then again, you might not be all that surprised.

After Tim’s grades took a hit because his performance in class was lacking, we restricted his computer time on the rationale that he had to spend more time studying. Not only did his grades improve but, as a by-product of having only forty-five minutes of access to the net each day, he also spent more time reading, playing guitar, talking to us and chasing the cats as he growled ferociously.

After he began to pull down better grades, he proposed, and we agreed, to let him regulate his own access to the computer. He did pretty well, for a time, but lately he’s been waiting until nine or nine-thirty to start his homework, we have to drag him away from the computer to get him to come to dinner, and he argues with his mom about how much time he should be allowed to spend playing computer games.

And last night he pretty much completely fell off the wagon, which is too bad, because his mother and sincerely wanted to see self-regulation work, and work well, but it’s not. Watch this space to find out how the intervention went.

LATER: Can’t say how it went; have to wait and see. He says he’ll make up all his school work, but he said that in the first place. He’s done everything else he said he would do, though, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Watch and wait.


That feeling after you roll out of bed first thing in the morning, like there’s a big, wet towel wrapped around your head, the worn-out feeling that makes people say you’re “not a morning person?” That’s called sleep inertia by people who study these things, and it’s more mentally incapacitating than being drunk, or not getting enough sleep. That’s right, there’s now a medically quantified condition that you can throw around at work as you’re fighting your way to the coffee machine. “I’m inert! Get me java!”

Thursday, January 12th, 2006

Ever since we paid our last heating bill we’ve turned the thermostat down to sixty-five degrees at night, which isn’t as bad as it sounds if you sleep under a pile of quilts, comforters and blankets, as we do. I’m toasty warm once I’ve cocooned myself, but unluckily for me the cats have learned to burrow into the gap between Barb and me to stay warm, too. When I’m awake I don’t have any problem holding my own against a ten-pound cat, but during the course of the night they’re somehow able to gain the upper hand over me and I wake up toward morning trying to keep warm with a corner of the blanket about the size of a hand towel. Doesn’t work.

As I wake to the realization that my butt is colder than an Eskimo Pie, I can take control of the situation by firmly grabbing the corner that is still within my grasp and pulling the quilt taut by quickly rolling over. The cats pop out like teenagers from a beach-blanket trampoline.

Now that it costs something like five hundred dollars a week to heat a house with natural gas, there are reports of people burning corn to keep their homes warm. This is not the work of a few nutjobs out in the boonies; one or two companies have designed purpose-built stoves and thousands of people are snapping them up. This makes a certain amount of sense from the point of view that corn is a cheap fuel and we can grow as much of it as necessary, at least for now. I have this nagging thought, though: we grow a food and burn it as fuel. Aside from being counter-intuitive, doesn’t that seem just a bit perverse?


Less than a month ago, capital square looked like a scene from that disaster movie in which all of New York City froze solid, but today the sun was bright, the sky was clear, and temps were in the low fifties. Everybody was power-walking around the square in shirt sleeves, and they’ll be able to keep on doing it through the end of the week. It’s like somebody went away for the week and left the thermostat turned up.


If you paused in your daily routine earlier this morning because you felt a great disturbance, as if a million souls cried out before they fell ominously silent, that was me. My loan officer asked me to stop my his office to pick up a copy of the bank’s ‘good-faith estimate’ — his best guess, in writing, of what we could expect to cough up for the monthly mortgage payment on the house we want to buy. It was a bit higher than he originally quoted to me. How much higher? When I saw it I sucked in so much air so suddenly that I vacuumed all the papers off his desk, as well as all his pens and pencils, his stapler, his bobble-headed Badger football player, his computer monitor and keyboard and his framed picture of Scrooge McDuck. Then I shouted so loudly that I shattered all the windows in the building. That might have been the disturbance you felt.

Sensing that I was perhaps disquieted by his good-faith estimate, he launched into a detailed explanation, broke down every number, said many of the numbers were too high to make for a conservative estimate (probably as a hedge to keep me from vacuuming up all the closing paperwork), then did some banker’s magic to make the monthly payment almost equal to the number he quoted me earlier. I felt a little better by the time he was done, but I’ve been picking paper clips out of my teeth ever since.

Not that it matters. A monthly mortgage payment will be about what we pay for rent anywhere in Monona, anyway. I can make a spectacle of myself by Hoovering up all the paper in the Madison metro area, but it won’t change that. So what it all comes down to is, we can live in a cold, cramped rental and throw all our money at a landlord, or we can live in our own house, have all our stuff back, host garage sales every weekend, and spend all our free time doing yard work. When you put it that way, it’s a no-brainer. Right? RIGHT?


Cat poop! There’s a big box of cat poop at the bottom of the stairs! How’d that get there? Oh, yeh, the cats. Encouraging your pets to do their business in the house seems like pathologic behavior, though, doesn’t it? (And, technically, I guess it is, for some people, but never mind.)

The youngest male in the house is charged with raking the cat poop from the box morning and evening, in order that the cats will continue to poop in the box. We don’t want to promote any creative feline communication in our house; keep them happy with their toilet, please, so they don’t leave us any ‘messages.’ His mother reminded him, as we were on our way out the door this morning, of his obligation to the cats, which he had apparently overlooked. He popped through the door about ninety seconds after we did, immediately raising suspicion, and when I bolted from the car he protested a bit too quickly, and even followed me into the house, bleating, “I already did that, dad!”

But it didn’t even look as though he had. There was a fresh layer of kitty litter in the box, but it didn’t begin to cover the evidence of his deceit. I didn’t lecture or yell; that’s so counter-productive and unsatisfying. So my question is: What’s a suitable payback?

Friday, January 13th, 2006

It’s Friday the Thirteenth, baby! Dig those hep cats grooving to the beat they play on their bongos! Don’t you think Friday the Thirteenth should be a genuine American holiday? We could all go to work, then leave whenever we wanted, change into black turtle necks and hang out in our favorite taverns all day to read beat poems and smoke too much.

So what if it’s black cats instead of hep cats? Do you want the day off or don’t you?


Since there’s no official holiday, Barb and I made up one of our own. Every night when I get off from work, I wait on the corner of Carroll and Hamilton Street, where the mouth-watering aroma of Italian food from the kitchen of Peppino’s Restaurant fills the air. It drives me crazy.

“We’ve got to have dinner there some day,” I said to Barb tonight, after I got in the car.

“Why not tonight?” she asked. Yeh, why not? She comes up with the most unbreakable arguments (don’t let her good looks fool you into thinking she’s just another pretty face). We parked the car in a nearby ramp and had a scrumptious, relaxing meal — a little on the pricey side, but it’s not like we splurge every week, or even every month. In fact, we declared Friday the Thirteenth our night to splurge at a nice restaurant in town, and we’re already saving our nickels for the next one, in October.


Welcome to Madison: Sunny and fifty degrees yesterday, not a sign of snow anywhere within fifty miles of town. Cloudy, thirty-four degrees today and flurries all morning long. Jerry Bruckheimer couldn’t make this more bizarre with an unlimited special effects budget.

What’s even weirder is that tonight the downtown square will be closed to traffic and work crews will begin to truck in snow — where they’ll get it, I can’t imagine — to dump on the inner circle so cross-country skiers from all over the world can compete in the Capitol Square Sprints, a race around the square Saturday and Sunday. Just a month ago they busted the city’s budget hauling snow away; now they’re bringing it back?


Stick a pipe cleaner up your nose, shove it far enough back so the end comes out your ear, then twist it until you can feel the little kinky knots forming inside, poking at the back of your eyeball. That’s what the congestion in my sinuses felt like yesterday. Not a pretty picture, I know, but so long as I can foist it on you I know my suffering hasn’t gone to waste.

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

A trip to Saint Vincent de Paul’s is never wasted. I went in looking for nothing in particular and I walked away with a set of china and a handful of LP record albums.

I started off in the book section but didn’t find any I liked, so I gravitated toward the LPs and immediately found recordings of swing tunes from Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Willie Bryant and Jimmie Lunceford. I have no idea who those last two are, but it was a double-album set and it was only a buck. I kept on searching and found two Mills Brothers albums in the same pocket with a Rickie Lee Jones album. There was no rhyme or reason to where these recordings were. I got down on my hands and knees to pick through the albums on the bottom shelf and was rewarded with an early recording of Bob Newhart. Quite a haul for only fifteen minutes’ work.

Of course, I won’t have a turntable until May, but sometimes you just have to be patient.

The china was a fluke. I heard a remark pass between a couple ladies picking through the coffee cups. “It’s got the state of Wisconsin on the bottom,” one of them said, “but Milwaukee’s spelled wrong.” I swung around the aisle to take a look at what they found; it was a woodland pattern by House of Milwoky, made in Japan. I would have kicked myself for at least a year if I passed up “House of Milwoky.” I bought all eight cups. They were only thirty-five cents each.

“Why don’t you get the saucers that go with them, too?” Barb asked.

“Do you see the saucers?” I panted, eagerly looking around.

“No, but they’ve got to be here somewhere,” she said, starting to dig through the dishes on the other side of the aisle. I worked toward her from the other end and by the time we were done we’d found the sugar dish, the creamer and a set of cake plates, but no saucers. Oh, well.


Almost a month ago, I patted myself on the back for remembering the ball-point pen in the pocket of a shirt I stuffed in the wash machine. Today, karma came around. Not only did I wash my pen this time, it went into the drier, too, but it didn’t hold up as well in there as it had in the washer. The inside of the drum looked as though somebody with a big mouthful of blueberry pie had sneezed in there.

I tried bleach, rubbing alcohol, and some kind of miracle stain remover called Oxy Clean — none of it had the slightest effect whatsoever, but I washed down the inside surface of the whole tub anyway and hoped against hope that what was left wouldn’t turn all my boxer shorts a soft, sexy shade of lavender.


The O-Home Update: On Wednesday we faxed (and when I say “we,” I mean Wilma, our realtor. Barb and I do the head-scratching and second-guessing, then give her all the scut work) an amendment to the offer, asking the seller to fix some basement windows and a leaky valve on the water main. Yesterday we got the news from Wilma it was a go, one more step along the way toward living in a proper house we can call home.

The last time we lived in our own home was March 1999, which doesn’t sound so long ago in the Big Circle of Life, but it’s barely a dim memory to me. I’ve never regretted moving our family overseas, but I did miss having a place we could all call home.


The password is: passwords.

There are about a half-dozen software applications I have to use every day at work, and each of them has its own password. Each password must be at least six characters, and have at least one numeral and one ‘special character’ (cuss words, like @#$%^&*). I also have to log into about a half-dozen password-protected web sites every day.

All those passwords expire, all at different times, and none of the software applications or any of the web sites will let me reuse any passwords. On top of all that, some of the software cancels out some of the other software. There are three programs I have to use all day long, but I can’t leave them open, because when I log into one, it bumps me out of the others. So on any day I have to not only remember at least a dozen passwords, I have to be able to recall them all quickly enough to re-login as I jump from one application to another, looking up information in order to answer the telephoned questions of branch tellers.

I think we’ve got a kick-ass computer department. Some of my co-workers say it’s not all that good, but I’ve worked with some pretty thick-headed trolls. The one thing they’ve got in common is the same nutso policy about passwords, which is: Don’t write them down. Our guys seem pretty smart, so how can they believe it’s possible to go through a typical day without referring to a written list of passwords? If nobody wrote them down, the computer guys would spend all day every day resetting passwords!

I’ve got a memory like a sieve. On a good day, when I have the luxury of stopping to wait for all the gears in my head to get turning, I can remember all I’m supposed to know to get things done. If the boss is standing over me, sometimes it takes three shakes of a lamb’s tail instead of the usual two. It’s when I get the phone calls from frustrated or belligerent customers that my thoughts become so blank I could find nirvana and become Buddha.

Please Note: I did not say I had a list of my passwords. I do not now, nor have I ever kept a list of my passwords. That would be wrong.

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

“It might be a little strong,” Barb cautioned me, as she set a mug of steaming coffee beside the section of the Sunday paper I was reading.

“How many scoops did you use?” I asked her.

“Enough.” Oooo, not a good sign. Barb likes her coffee a little on the strong side. No, a lot on the strong side. I have a feeling she’d not only like the way my brother Pete makes coffee, she’d start making it the way he does — heap the beans in the grinder until it can’t hold any more. “Caffeine doesn’t affect me that much,” she claims, but I’ve seen her buzz on too much coffee and I can tell you that it does affect her. All she was doing this morning was reading the paper and washing clothes, though; so long as she doesn’t go out in public where people can see her, caffeine doesn’t affect her.


Speaking of Pete, this is too good not to share: My brother Pete writes from Texas:

Just south of Richfield on I-45 there's a large, light-brown pole-building with a large, poorly graded gravel parking lot and one of those trailer-mounted rent-by-the-day marquee signs out front. The marquee reads “Live Nudes BYOB.”

Does it get much sleazier than that?


Movies like Flight of the Phoenix are the reason I’d have a hard time making it as a professional movie critic. I don’t think there’s an editor anywhere who’d let me get away with writing “It stinks,” as the beginning and the end of a review, even though it’s the most concise review in terms of accuracy, brevity and clarity. Most people expect you to explain why it stinks, and in case you’re one of those people, here goes:

For a start, it’s a remake. The first rule of remakes is that it ought to be better than the original, because if it’s not, what’s the point of driving all the way to the mall to pay thirty bucks to see a crappy remake and eat stale popcorn when you could rent the original for two bucks and eat fresh-popped in the familiar comfort of your own living room? Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but my budget’s pretty tight, and “the movie experience” doesn’t add any value to a bad movie.

A few critics have contended that the 1965 original, starring Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough, was no great shakes in the first place. I’ve always liked it, and if I compared the old to the new I’d say things that would make me sound like I was channeling my inner old codger: “What’s with the hip-hop sound track and break dancing? Jimmy Stewart didn’t break dance! It looks like a damn music video!” And so on. The remake also had a lot more shouting, which seems to pass for drama these days.

Which brings us to the acting: Don’t worry about it. Even though somebody went to the trouble of bringing together Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Hugh Laurie and somebody known as Sticky Fingaz, they don’t do much (other than the shouting) in the way of trying to convince anybody they’re stranded in the desert with only the slimmest possibility of survival. Working in the blazing heat of the Gobi Desert for days seems to be nothing more than a minor annoyance as the he-men in the group strip to their waists to work on their tans. (Hugh Laurie, the pencil-pushing management geek, keeps wearing not only his button-down oxford shirt, but his undershirt as well. So does Miranda Otto, the only woman in the movie, and strangely miscast. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure somebody like Jessica Biel or Jessica Alba, or some other Jessica who’d pop out of a tank top, should have been signed for her part.)

In its defense, the remake used state-of-the-art kick-ass special effects to show the plane gulped up by a sandstorm, but after the plane crashes in the desert the effects are pretty much over, and almost nothing blows up.

If, by some chance, you’ve already seen this movie but found you didn’t enjoy it much, it might be worth your while to rent the Stewart/Attenborough version for a night to see how that plays. If, however, you liked it, please tell me what it was you liked about it. There migh tbe something, but I can’t imagine what it is.


After worrying about Bonkers’ swollen eye all week, yesterday morning we finally took him to the vet, who gave us a topical ointment for it and said we shouldn’t worry too much about it unless it got a lot worse. And she loved Bonkers, as did the technician; they both cooed over him and stroked his fur, and although he wasn’t crazy about having them stick things in his eye, he loves the kind of attention they were slopping all over him, so he put up with it, mostly.

Monday, January 16th, 2006

Happy Martin Luther King Day. I put in an honest day’s work while the layabouts in my family stayed home, watched television and ate bon-bons by the bushel. Woe is me.

“Do you want a ride into work?” Barb asked me last night.

“Well, that would save me about fifteen million dollars in parking fees,” I answered. Parking downtown costs an arm and a leg and another arm, when you can get it. She left a seven o’clock wakeup call so she would have a little time to stumble out of bed and get over her sleep inertia.

Getting ready for work when I’m the one going in and Barb’s the one staying home presents certain challenges, the least of which is never going to be creeping around trying to find all my clothes in a dark bedroom. If I don’t check myself before I leave the house, I end up at work wearing one black sock and one white one, a mismatched shirt & tie, that kind of thing. It’s entertaining for the other guys in my office, but I’d rather not do it more than twice a year, because then they start to expect it.

It was yet another gloriously sunny day in Madison today. Temps in the forties melted all the snow they trucked in for the weekend’s Nordic race around the square. I assume they scooped most of it up, but there were still a few chunks of dirty brown ice up against the curb. That must have been a joy to ski on.

Thank goodness Michelangelo’s coffee house was open. I’ve been hanging out there during my lunch hours to unwind with a hot cuppa, relax and write some drivel. As I was walking along Carroll Street this morning, though, I passed Taylor’s antique shop and saw all the lights were off, which reminded me that this was MLK day — would the shops be open? All the federal and state offices were empty and shut, natch, but as it happened most of the shops downtown still wanted my money, so I got my decaf java fix and the chance to share my jumbled thoughts with you, you lucky stiff.

Beats the alternative: After she got back home from dropping me off, Barb continued her day with a visit to the dentist. Gosh, how I wished a masked stranger was poking at my gums with a pointy metal probe. Ah, well; another time, perhaps.

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

I had my shower. Don’t remember that. I never remember my shower unless I slip and bonk my head on something, or turn off the water but discover I forgot to rinse the soap out of my hair. Then it suddenly becomes memorable.

I had my breakfast, two slices of bread, toasted to crunchy perfection and slathered in margarine and jam, and chased by a glass of orange juice. To make toast perfectly, stop the process halfway through and turn the slices over. Of course, then you have to hover over the toaster to make sure it doesn’t burn, because the time starts over, and if you’ve got a cat at your feet that wants petting you can be distracted. Remain vigilant!

I very nearly screwed up the coffee when I switched on the percolator but forgot to put the lid on the carafe; the coffee doesn’t drain out of the cone into the carafe unless the lid’s on. I can only imagine what kind of steaming hell that might have turned out to be. Could’ve turned into a very bad start to the day, but I caught it in time.

I had my breakfast while catching up on the news. Nine out of ten doctors would tell you not to do this if you’re easily upset, and I am, but for some reason it doesn’t give me a volcanic case of indigestion, I just get a little grumpy. Okay, really very grumpy. Can you blame me? I thought not.

Then there was ironing. I love the smell of ironing in the morning, but hate to do it. Really hate it. I tell myself time and again to iron my shirts the night beforehand, and I’ve even made myself do it once or twice, but I can’t get into the habit. It’s an almost-clinical example of chronic procrastination.

After getting dressed, I made myself lunch. Unlike the ironing, my lunch was packed the night before by My Darling B. She’s not in the habit of doing that, but she did last night and I love her for it. It’s not that it takes so little to win my heart, it’s that I appreciate every little bit, or something romantically mushy like that.

The rush out the door is such a blur I remember that about as well as the shower. One moment I’m standing in the kitchen, packing my lunch, the next I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of my car and I can’t remember how I got there. I don’t even want to. I crank the transmission into R and we’re on our way into town. That’s how my morning begins. Glad you could be here to witness it.

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

HO kay!

The million-dollar view was worth much, much more this morning (This is where Master Tang would ask, with a wave of his hand, “How much more, would you say? Ten million more?”) The road from Cottage Grove to Monona crosses over the top of a ridge that runs along the east side of the interstate, and from the top of that ridge you get a view of Madison that looks like it should be worth at least a million dollars, if only it weren’t peppered with condos that are so ordinary they look more like apartment blocks. Just off the road there’s a shop that serves weak espresso, a chunky strip mall is going up beside that, and older developments are scattered all around. What a waste.

My Daddy Warbucks fantasy would be to build a long, low prairie-style mansion along the top of the ridge with wide-open windows facing that million-dollar view. It wouldn’t necessarily be my mansion to live in, just a cool-looking building to take full advantage of the location. I’d cover the interstate with a sweeping green park and screen Cottage Grove Road behind a hedge. Then, so long as I’m dreaming, I’d drive into Madison with one of those saws that cut through sidewalk cement and chop down those radio transmission towers and chimneys that ruin the skyline.


Bonkers had a big old bulgy thing sticking out of his eye when we came home after work, so he had to go see the vet again tonight. Best damn vet we ever saw. She was stroking him and cooing in his ear and whispering sweet nothings to him. I think he may have even begun to like it. I’m not sure how much he’ll like staying at the vet’s tonight, though. They’re going to put him under tomorrow and root around in his mouth to see if they can find a reason for all that bulging.


Barbie made fudge tonight. Auntie Susan gave her a recipe for easy-to-make fudge that she bills as “fat-free,” which I can only guess really means “no fat added” because the recipe calls for two bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips, which are loaded with fat, from what I can tell. Not that I’m complaining. I got to help lick the bowl, and it was fabulous.


I had been saying for weeks that I intended to go back to school to get a certification in web design, or something that sounded at least as high-tech and impressive as that. I didn’t sign up, I just talked about it a lot. I had this warped idea that talking about something a lot made me look ambitious, but CURSES! it didn’t, and I had to follow through in order to convince people I could be the quick brown fox instead of the lazy dog. Why can’t people take my word that I’m a smart guy? I am. Really. I’d prove it, but that that goes against my nature, which is to put everything off as long as possible. That’s not lazy, that’s conservation of energy (and if my dim memory of high school science is correct, that’s a very significant physical law).

When I first came to Madison and started looking for jobs, I noticed an awful lot of openings in the field of web design and maintenance. It just so happens I not only know how to make web pages, I even like doing it, but it’s just been a hobby for me up to now. I never took any classes, I just took apart web pages to see how they worked and then started putting some together myself. People tell me I’m pretty smart for figuring that out, but it’s not a terribly solid bullet on a résumé. It’s not like I can walk into a job interview and say, “I know stuff,” and they’ll be able to tell from glancing at my web page that I’m the guy they’ve been looking for.

I hauled myself over to the downtown campus of the Madison Area Technical College yesterday and signed up for a class in Visual Basic programming. The Spring semester had just started, and the halls were teeming will students at least twenty years younger than I was. Quite a few of them were twenty-five years younger. I’m pretty sure I saw two or three who were thirty years younger, and I didn’t know how to take that.

I had to talk to the registrar through the slit of a window made of inch-thick bullet-proof plastic, which not only made it hard to hear her but made me wonder what kind of school this was. The slit was the tray to pass papers through, so every time she started talking I had to crouch down to hear what she was saying. Hey! What’s that old fart doing over there? Is that the funky chicken? Haw haw haw! The registrar entered all my information in the school’s computer, gave me a student ID number and a printout of my class information, and told me my first lesson would be — gosh, that evening! Holy crap!

Classes for web stuff are held at a campus near the airport, so Barb dropped me off on her way home. I picked up the textbook in a detour to the bookstore, then wandered aimlessly after I found the room the class was supposed to be in; it was empty and there was no note on the door. The first floor had hall monitors directing traffic; the third floor was deserted. I ran back down to the first floor — deserted. This was turning into every nightmare I’d ever had about going back to school.

It was like every other programming class I’ve ever been in: Lots of technical terms described at great length for the people who had never seen a line of code in their lives. Visual Basic is something I never spent any time with, though, so I tried to follow every word, which would’ve been easier to do if I’d been able to activate my computer account and play along with the rest of the class. I signed up too late for them to have my account ready.

Thursday, January 19th, 2006

Tim hit the snooze button on his alarm clock twice this morning, so I marched downstairs and snatched it off his nightstand, as promised. He wouldn’t make up his mind last night what time he wanted to get up, so I told him he’d better figure it out because if he hit the snooze twice, there wouldn’t be a third time. And there wasn’t. There was only peace and quiet.

He doesn’t like me as his alarm clock, though, I can tell you that. And how can I tell? By the way he shouted, “Jeeze, Dad! Turn off the light!” and other comments. So I turned out the light and he went back to sleep. See? It all worked out. If I have any luck at all getting him out of bed, it’ll only be after I beat him around the head and shoulders with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction. They don’t cheese him off as much as the overhead light does.

It’s that way with everything — his daily household chores, for instance. He’s supposed to unload the dishwasher, rake the cat box, take out the trash, clean up the recycling, et cetera ad freaking nauseum. I can put it in writing and often do, but he doesn’t remember it, to say nothing about actually doing it, unless I take drastic measures. The last time I got him to remember his chores, I had to resort to dismantling the computer and stashing it in the trunk of the car so that he would be in this world, as opposed to the cyber-world, from the time he got home to the time we got home. “Pop the trunk,” was how he greeted his mother that afternoon. Hi, how’ve you been, I missed you too.

I was like this once, I have to keep reminding myself. I have always been a world-class procrastinator, and I started learning my craft early in life, much to the dismay of both parents. Unlike my son, though, I had a dad who would explode like a battleship full of ammunition when I let things go too long. I didn’t learn any more from it than Tim learns from my denial of access tactics; that must be in the nature of teenaged boys, too.


Bonkers came back from the vet minus seven teeth, and apparently none the worse for wear. He was pretty dopey for about an hour after we got him home and couldn’t walk in a straight line, but he was hungry as a horse and wouldn’t sit still, had to roam all through the house to assure himself that he was, in fact, back in familiar territory and not in that weird-smelling clinic any more. In case you were on tenterhooks, waiting for the prognosis, the rotten teeth caused an abscess, but the vet thinks she got it all and the antibiotics he’s on should cover anything she missed.

Boo was not as glad to have Bonk back as the rest of us were. She watched him stagger weirdly around the room, and when she caught a whiff of the chloroform or whatever they used to anesthetize him, she arched her back, spat and growled. She even rushed him more than once to take a shot at his head; Bonkers mostly shrugged it off, although he did get pretty tired of it and tried to smack her down once, pretty hard to do with just one eye and a groggy head.

Friday, January 20th, 2006

Never assume you know who’s going to be on the other end of the phone when you pick up the receiver. With an assist from technology you may be right nine times out of ten, but it’s that tenth time that teaches you never to answer the phone by lowering your voice and mooing, “Haloooo?”

This week I’ve earned my hourly wage just answering the phone. At the middle of the month our department is busy, busy, busy answering calls from all the people who waited until the last day of their grace period to send in their mortgage check. All mortgage payments are due on the first of the month, but it’s bank policy to give a fifteen-day grace period. Most people pay their mortgage with plenty of time to spare, but a small fraction of the people who have a mortgage with us choose to stretch the safety net to the limits. I’ve heard callers tell me they mailed their checks on the fourteenth, and in their minds that’s more than enough time.

This month there was a different twist: Most people assumed the bank was closed on Martin Luther King Day, the last day of the grace period. They called to tell me in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to pay any damn late charge if they couldn’t make their payment on the day the bank was closed. The stunned silence after we explained the bank was open Monday gave us plenty of time to repeat that mortgage payments are due on the first of the month, not the middle.

A lot of the calls that come to our department are transferred from the loans department, where two coworkers I’ll call “Symon” and “Kelly” answer the phones. They call me so often that I got used to seeing their numbers pop up on the caller ID and started answering calls from them by saying, “Hiya, Kelly,” or “What’s up, Symon?” instead of “Credit Services, this is Dave. How may I help you?” That’s a dumb habit to get into. Take my word for it.

Kelly’s been training a new hire I’ll call “Molly.” I found out about this when I answered a call from Kelly’s phone with, “Hiya, Kelly,” then heard a voice I didn’t recognize. They tag-teamed for a bit on that phone, then, just to keep me on my toes, Kelly called me from Symon’s phone. I think they’re enjoying messing with me.

Symon called me to transfer a customer’s call. Right after I finished with the customer, the phone rang again and Symon’s number popped up in the window. I picked up the line and clownishly answered, “Yeessssss?” There was a long silence before a customer, not Symon, asked, “Is this the loan department?” I’m still not sure how that happened.


“Is this the day?” Gertie asked as I walked through the front door of Shakespeare’s bookstore. (I don’t know that her name is Gertie; we haven’t been properly introduced. She looks like a Gertie to me, though, so that’s how I think of her. The beauty of writing drivel is I don’t have to check facts.)

“I think it is,” I said, fishing my wallet out of my overcoat pocket. I had been coming to Shakespeare’s every other Friday for eight weeks and putting down twenty dollars, sometimes twenty-five, on a copy of John White’s The American Passenger Railroad Car, and this was the day I gave Gertie thirty dollars to walk away with it. They’ve been holding the book, which is about the size and weight of a summer cottage, in layaway for me since I spotted it through the doors of a locked bookcase in November. I didn’t intend to buy it then, because I thought it must have cost at least two hundred bucks, but I had the shop owner unlock the case so I could page through the book because I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a look. Big mistake. At a glance I could tell it was leagues better than any other book I owned on the subject. I had to have it.

And what a subject. I mean, can you honestly say there’s any subject more intriguing than American railroad passenger cars? Once, they roamed the countryside in trains that stretched to the horizon, trains of such infinite variety that you need a book like White’s to tell them apart. Now they’re practically nonexistent. If you’re not intrigued by that, you’re not paying attention.

It doesn’t make very good bedtime book, though. It’s impossible to stand it up on my chest, and it takes up a lot of real estate if I lay it beside me to page through it. Also, it could use its own set of wheels; Arnold Schwarzenegger would have trouble carrying it around. If I can find one of those waist-high desks, the kind you found in libraries with an unabridged dictionary open on it, that would be perfect. There should be lots of them available; nobody uses dictionaries any more.

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

I’ve received my first issue of Afterburner, the Air Force newsletter for retirees. I didn’t know we got a newsletter. All these benefits! I received the Winter 2005 issue; it’s published three times a year. I guess they had to cut publishing for one of the seasons. Congressional budget cuts? I’m not so sure about the name, though. Is it a reference to fast-paced military culture, or is it because old codgers fart a lot? (Strangely, the airplane they chose to put on the masthead, a B-2 bomber, doesn’t have an afterburner.)


Dumbest show on television: Numb3rs (The title just screams “I SUCK!” doesn’t it? Tim calls it “numb three arz”) is about an FBI agent who gets his math geek brother to help him solve crimes using chalk and a lot of arithmetic gibberish. Stars Rob Morrow, who used to be a lot of fun to watch on the comedy Northern Exposure. Now that I think of it, all the principals (Judd Hirsch from Taxi, Peter MacNicol from Ally McBeal, and David Krumholtz from 10 Things I Hate About You) are all more fun to watch when they’re in comedies. Numb3rs isn’t comedy. It’s stupid to the tenth power. Avoid it like fourth-period algebra.


There’s an excellent collection of old codger gripes on dp’s blog. My favorite: “In my day, we didn’t have hand-held calculators, we counted on our fingers. To subtract, we had to have fingers amputated.”

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

After our morning cuppa and a quick breakfast, Barbie wanted to motor into town to visit the farmer’s market and bird-dog some books. I’m as easily excited by a day trip as she is, and obligingly took a quick shower, threw on a shirt and trousers, and jumped into the O-mobile.

Our first stop in town was the farmer’s market. During the winter, they gather in the Madison Senior Center instead of capital square, so there are a lot fewer farmers, but they seem to have a more fun. For a start, they had three people sawing away at fiddles for entertainment. It was a Slavic folk tune I recognized immediately as the background music for the Gameboy version of “Tetris.” One of the fiddlers told me it was called “The Basso,” so now I can find a recording of it and play it on the stereo instead of firing up “Tetris” for my ethnic music fix.

L’Etoile, a downtown restaurant, was on hand to provide a sit-down breakfast. Had we only known, I think we could have roused ourselves out of bed much earlier than nine-thirty and enjoyed a delicious helping of French bread, but the tea and scones were still worth the trip all by themselves. Delicious!

Among the yummies we bought at the market were a half-dozen smoked bratwurst (which we served that very evening with a side of tater tots and onion rings), a big chunk o’ bison to roast for dinner the next evening, and a clutch of eggs (laid by free-range chickens, natch).

After we finished our tea and scones, we hit the streets in search of several books we knew to be hidden in downtown Madison thanks to the Bookcrossing website, starting at the snow-covered public park known as the library mall. Barb was game enough to brush the snow off all the benches and tables while I merely bent double low enough to look in and around the sculptures that doubled as places to picnic. No luck there, though.

We also looked behind the Pepsi machine in the shops at 122 State Street, but somebody else got that one before we came along. Ditto for the one at the Fair Trade Café, and we never did find Einstein’s Bagels, although we didn’t go all the way to the end of State Street because I was so cold by that time that my nipples were poking through the heavy canvas of my fatigue jacket.

There was one last chance for some measure of success on our hunt, but we had to jump in the car and cruise down Monroe Avenue to the Victor Allen Coffee Shop in Knickerbocker Square. Barbie spotted a copy of Garden of Beasts with the Bookcrossings sticker on the cover, and it made her so happy to finally find a book that had been released that she didn’t care whether or not she knew what it was about (she didn’t).


I don’t know what to say about The 40-Year-Old Virgin that hasn’t already been said by more widely-known film critics, but in case you haven’t read them and you do read me: It’s the surprisingly sincere story of Andy, a virgin (duh), but not unbelievably so; viewers who rent this movie expecting Steve Carell to go totally bonkers, as he did in Anchorman or Bruce Almighty, might be disappointed with this quietly funny treatment. The movie is pure sex farce, but the relationship that Andy builds with Trish, played by Cathrine Keener, is genuinely romantic and held my interest, not just for the next laugh (and there were truckloads), but also to see if the movie could wind up all the loose ends in a believable way. If I told you that it ended in a musical send-up so outrageously funny it left me in tears, you might not agree that was believable, but I thought it was, and satisfyingly so. I’d have to recommend it, with one caveat; as a modern-day sex farce, the language is uncompromising. If you’re easily put off by cussing, the dialogue of this movie is going to almost constantly distract you (we watched the unrated version, which was all they had on offer at the video store; I don’t know how many effing words they’d trim from a rated version, though).


My first issue of Mainline Modeler arrived in the mail yesterday, a Christmas gift from Tim and the first time in recent memory that anybody gave me anything related to choo-choos. Mainline Modeler is a monthly normally packed with tips for the model railroader, although this issue seemed unusually bereft of articles about building models from scratch, the magazine’s specialty. There plan drawings of just two examples of rolling stock and few detail photos for examination. It’s been years since I subscribed to this magazine, as the price of subscription is rather high; I hope the staff are experiencing only a temporary lull and not a decline.

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

At quarter past five this morning, a county snow plow pulled into the parking lot of the Cottage Grove municipal building, right next to our house. The driver dropped the blade of his plow and shoved it across the asphalt, making a noise like a million old men passing gas in unison. (What a Guinness record that would be!)

There hasn’t been any snowfall since Friday night, so what’s up with the snow plow? That’s just plain mean, that’s what that is. He may have been under orders, and stupid orders at that, from a pencil-necked geek behind a desk, but he came back and did it again about a half-hour later. Mean.


When I plug in the iron to press my shirt in the morning, the bedroom lights dim, and if I’m ironing and somebody tries to nuke something in the microwave, a fuse blows that takes out all the lights in the house. I’m not a master electrician, but I’ve got to ask: What’s the point of even having a fuse box if all the lights and all the electrical outlets are on the same damn circuit? It’s like living in a one-room tenement apartment that has one light fixture and all the kitchen appliances are plugged into it.


Helga’s back! After going missing so long that we hardly looked for her any more, we spotted our favorite Willy Street shop keeper sweeping the walk in front of the sewing store as we crossed the bridge from Winnebago Street. (Actually, we don’t know that she’s the shop keeper, but she doesn’t sweep the walk in front of any other shops, so we sort of assumed.) “She must’ve been in Sweden over the holidays, visiting family,” Barb guessed; she’s much better at playing “instant history” than I am. “Or maybe she’s just recovered from major surgery.” Yew! Let’s stick with the ‘visiting relatives in Sweden’ story.


Almost everywhere you go in the building where I work they’re playing music from hidden speakers; there’s music in the hallways, music in the offices, music in the break room, classical music, contemporary music, canned music and music played over the radio. So why is the one place they don’t play music — in the toilet — the place I could use it the most? I’m not bashful — okay, in all honesty, I am bashful, but I think anybody would appreciate some kind of background noise in the toilet, don’t you think? I’d like it so much I’d even welcome an all hip-hop radio station.

I could sing, but that’s almost as embarrassing as any other sound I might make.


As if you didn’t have enough to worry about: Cliff Arnall, a psychologist in Cardiff, Wales, has mathematically quantified today as the gloomiest day of the year, based on factors such as weather, debt, monthly salary, days since Christmas and failure to keep New Year’s resolutions. Arnall’s equation was formulated specifically for his little corner of the United Kingdom, but said it would work for the United States, too, except in places like Texas or Florida where the weather’s nicer. Apparently Arnall’s never been to Texas.

Tuesday, January 24th, 2006

The cats got this idea they’re going to get fed at three in the morning. They’re very, very, very wrong.

It started when Bonkers came home from the vet and hadn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours. He stayed overnight and they didn’t feed him because of the anesthetic they were going to give him; I don’t know whether or not they fed him anything after he came around, but I don’t think they did. I think we gave him his first meal in a full day, and he wolfed it down so fast we thought somebody had made some kind of mistake. “Did you feed the cat?” “Of course I did; you saw me put it down there.” “Where is it then?” We weren’t supposed to give him much, but he begged and begged until we gave in and fed him again, and he made that disappear, too, so we fed him a bit more just before bedtime.

And then, at three o’clock in the morning, he was so hungry that I woke to the pathetic sounds of Bonkers prowling round and round the kitchen, pawing under the appliances and cupboards, looking to see if perhaps there was a forgotten morsel of kibble somewhere. He couldn’t bring himself to barge into our bedroom, wake us up and ask for more, but he couldn’t get back to sleep, either.

I knew it was dangerous to get up and feed him — dangerous in the sense that he might come to expect it, not in the sense that he would messily devour me — but I couldn’t bear to listen to him scratching for food and do nothing about it, so I roused from my slumber, prepared a bowl of food for him and put out some kibble for Boo to be fair, then went back to bed. He did the same thing the next morning; I gave in just once more. Then I ignored all further requests.

Characteristically, Bonkers has sort of clued in that I won’t be getting up early to feed him. He’ll put up with almost anything, even abuse, and won’t complain. It’s Boo, the Princess, who thinks she can wake me up and get fed at any hour she pleases. She watched Bonkers get me up twice and thought, “Ah ha! If it works for him, it should also work for me!” She is, as I pointed out, dead wrong, but convincing her of that won’t be as easy as it was with Bonkers. She’s always thought she was entitled to special treatment, and won’t take any behavior she considers abuse without dishing some out. When I ignore her calls to get up and feed her early in the morning, she jumps on my head, or scratches on the box spring mattress, or finds a pile of newspapers beside the bed and paws through them. There’s almost no sound more annoying than crumpling newspapers. She gets thrown out of the bedroom every time she does that, but she’s had her revenge already. Eventually she’ll give up, because I’ve got more patience than she does, but it’s a long road.


There’s really nothing quite like getting an early-morning e-mail from your bank to wake you up, especially when it says something like, “Hi! Just dropping you a note to let you know you’ve overdrawn your account, so we’re transferring a boatload of money from your line of credit to cover it. Have a nice day!”

After my heart stopped going thumpa-thumpa-thumpa and I got my breathing back under control, I woke Barb as gently as possible and asked her to come say hi to me before she jumped into the shower. (Why do so many people say they “jump” into the shower when jumping onto wet porcelain is such a bad idea?) I let her give me a smooch before I showed her the e-mail, because I knew she’d be in too much of a tizzy to remember to kiss me after. And she was. But she figured out almost immediately what happened; that’s why she’s in charge of the books and I get to do the somewhat less brainy stuff around the house, like scrub the toilet and screw coat hangers to the walls.

The one brainy kind of thing I know how to do is really more nerdy than brainy: night school to learn visual basic. That’s right, I went back. I think I can even stay with it. I was a tiny bit worried I’d be way outclassed by the younger programming nerds in the course, but nobody in the class is light years beyond me — maybe ten million miles, give or take, but not light years. The course is all about using a programming toy to let me program in a language called Visual Basic, without all the fuss and bother of having to learn too much about the actual language itself. Once I picked up the basic idea of the programming toy, it was a lot of fun to play with, and I knocked out all three lab assignments in under an hour. It was nerd-o-riffic!

If there’s a down side to my new Tuesday night geek fest, it’s the hours. I have to go there straight from work, and class is open until nine, but it’s just one night a week. I can do one night a week on my head. I think. Check back in about four or five weeks.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

It’s Wednesday. That means I wear the gray pants.

I have three pairs of Haggar dress slacks I bought immediately after the good folks at Anchor Bank called to tell me they’d be pleased as punch to hire me. Up to that point, I had two pairs of slacks I might be able to wear to work in a bank: one pair was a bit tight around the waist, the other pair went with my suit jacket and I didn’t want it to go threadbare while the jacket remained in pristine condition, banished to the far corner of my closet until the next marriage, funeral or job interview (I’m hoping I’m called to them in approximately that order). So off I ran to Sears or Penney’s — well, both, really, plus the Boston Store and Kohl’s — to put together my working wardrobe.

It’s not very fancy; it couldn’t even be called imaginative. What it was, was quick and thrifty. I would’ve bought it all from Goodwill if I hadn’t known it would make me look like I just woke up from a night sleeping on the bus stop bench. Now, I still look like I slept in my clothes, but indoors. That’s the key to the look I’ve created. Fashion plates, take note.

I started with two pairs of slacks, one black and one brown; I added the charcoal gray pair a couple weeks later. I figured I’d wear one pair one day, switch to another pair the next day, and adding the charcoal pants would keep anybody from figuring out I had only three pairs. Ingenious, no? (Non. C’est moronique.)

By mixing and matching the pants with four button-down oxfords, two in solid colors and two prints, I hoped to further the illusion of a much larger wardrobe, and it would have worked beautifully if not for two teensy-tiny missteps: For some inscrutable reason, I bought one of the print shirts with sleeves an inch too short. I look even more like a bean pole when I wear it, which is not often. And, one of the solids lost a dust-up with an ink pen in the drier a couple weeks ago. Haven’t figured out a way to save it, so it’s out of the fight now.

I had exactly two ties, counting the one I used to wear with my Air Force uniform, but uncle Jim saved me from having to wear that by donating about a dozen ties from his eye-buggingly-large collection. And now you know way more than you ever wanted to about how I dress for success. Drivel, truly.

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

I needed some divine isolation while I sought to write drivel this evening. Barb was watching ER, her favorite television soap opera, and there was no place in the house to hide where I could get away from the dialogue. It penetrated to every corner, behind every closed door.

Then Tim showed me the way. (Good work, Grasshopper!) I went downstairs to kick him off the computer, because I’m such a heartless bastard. He’d been playing shoot-‘em-up games with gamers on the other side of the world and searching for music to download, and he was raving about a sample from a Linkin Park album that he had to play to me. It was pretty good. It was really pretty good. He called it “industrial” music. It sounded a lot like the kind of techno stuff I used to listen to when I was in college; in fact, it sounded just like an album by The Art of Noise that I played incessantly back then, called Who’s Afraid Of (The Art Of Noise)?

I hate to admit this, but I downloaded my favorite cut from it off the internet so he could hear it. It was wrong of me. I’m profoundly ashamed. But I have bought the album already, and besides, Tim liked it. Said it was really trippy, “like a soundtrack to Doctor Seuss.”

And I came to be able to write drivel with my ear buds in and Close To The Edit playing, which, at medium volume, can probably drown out the banal dialogue of any soap on television. It also very nearly got me into trouble with the wife unit during a commercial break. Barb told me her butt was freezing and wondered what was so funny about that, because I had a nostalgic smile at the corner of my mouth from listening to the music.


Tracy Chapman, pop folk singer, asks the musical question, “If you knew that you would die today, would you change?” Yes, Tracy, I would. I would change from live to dead. That’s a pretty significant change, by anybody’s reckoning.

Otherwise, no, I would still get up, put in a full day at the office, puzzle over the crossword after eating supper, watch about half of some inane crime show on television, then go to bed early, even if I knew I would die.

What a stupid question.


I added quite a few blogs to my watch list. In case you’re paying any attention:

Andrew Sullivan writes The Daily Dish for Time magazine. He touches on topical stories while adding pithy little comments. I’m still trying to figure out if I want to keep reading him.

Glenn Reynolds is The Instapundit; well-known in the blogosphere, he links to topical comments that are talked about in some of the most well-known blogs, but only rarely links to the stories as they appear in the popular news media. I haven’t read his blog in a while because he doesn’t say much, mostly quotes from other blogs.

Susan Schuelke is from the same part of Wisconsin where I grew up and a student at UW-Eau Claire, my alma mater. She’s spending this semester at a British university in Harlaxton, England, and has set up a blog to keep in touch with the folks back home. I’m insanely jealous; when I was attending Eau Claire, I applied for a semester at a school at Winchester, but couldn’t raise the money to pay for it, and eventually had to enlist in the Air Force to get to see England. Reading Susie’s posts and flipping through her photos is a vicarious re-visit.

Gil Rondan posts photos from his home in LA. I’m a sucker for any blog with good photos.

Andrew writes, and writes very well, about his neighborhood of Van Nuys, California. I don’t know Van Nuys from Albuquerque, but it’s a subject so dear to Andrew’s heart I’m still interested.

Shawn Roberts is a pilot who flies around the Vancouver area. I’m interested mostly because his job sounds about like what I had in mind when I was a student pilot.

Two Guys In Poznan is written by Americans working in Poland, but I haven’t delved into it deeply enough to find out what for or for how long.

Christine has two cats and she can write.

Guy Wonders writes The Cul de Sac Blues, an almost-daily diary of neighborhood happenings that reminds me of Garrison Kiellor’s Lake Wobegon stories.

Friday, January 27th, 2006

Susan asked me yesterday if I’ve called the people who have our household goods in storage and asked them to deliver it. I haven’t, but it reminded me that I not only have to schedule delivery, I have to ask one more time for a 90-day extension. They’ll hold the stuff up to a year for retirees, but only in 90-day bites, because the military is all about finding ways to make simple things as irritating as possible, they also like to build in booby traps. “Deliver your household goods? Sorry, sold them at auction three weeks ago, after your 90-day storage period expired and you didn’t call back. Thought you didn’t want them any longer.”


I’m trying to figure out how to ask for a raise. I’ve been on the job six months; it’s not too early, is it? I’m not kidding; I really don’t know. In my previous line of work I’d take a multiple-choice test, and if I penciled in enough of the right bubbles, I got more money. Doesn’t work like that in the private sector.

I’m making pretty good money where I’m at, for an entry-level job. I like the work, I like the office, and I like the people I work with quite a lot. I found out the other day, though, that if I apply for and get hired on at another job in the company, I’ll get a seven percent raise. That’s a significant chunk of change for a guy who only yesterday received a letter that began, “Congratulations! Your mortgage has been approved!” (If it weren’t for the seven percent and the mortgage, I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about it for another six months.)

Saturday, January 28th, 2006

I’ve got just one speed for getting out of bed in the morning: Very Slow. I set my alarm clock for five-thirty on weekdays so I can roll out, take a shower, make the coffee, get a bite to eat, then sit and read the news or write drivel or some other mindless activity while I sip a hot cuppa and try to fire up all the neural pathways. We’re usually out of the door by ten minutes ‘til seven, although some mornings I’m still tying my necktie and stuffing lunch in my bag then and we don’t pull out of the driveway until seven.

This morning I took Barb to work (I know, it’s Saturday; I’ll explain it a few ‘graphs down) because I needed the car. The cats woke me up to be fed; that must’ve been between five and five-thirty. I locked them out of the room and went back to bed to catch a bit more fitful sleep while the cats scratched insistently, pathetically, noisily at the door.

Barb set the alarm for six-thirty. I trudged to the kitchen to start the coffee, poured myself a bowl of cereal and munched on it, dry, washing it down with orange juice, while I tried and completely failed to get my brain in gear. The news headlines didn’t help: Democracy in the middle east resulted in the Palestinians electing a militant organization dedicated to abolishing Israel. Hmmm. No matter how many times I popped my eyeballs out of their sockets and rubbed them clean on the front of my shirt, the story didn’t change. How weird.

Then Barb strolled in from her shower, head turbaned in a towel, to pour herself a cup of fresh brew and drop Da Bomb on me: “I’d like to hit the road by quarter past seven,” she said. A quick glance at the clock lit up all the warning lights on my dashboard: I had just twenty minutes to shower, dress, pack up & go. I took a scorching shower in the hopes that it would pop me out of my funk, but no joy there.

I remember very little of the morning after I stepped into the shower. I dropped Barb off at work: I know that’s true because I noticed she wasn’t in the car when I pulled into a parking space at Madison Area Technical College. Other than that, I remember the drive through town only dimly, and listening to a news story on National Public Radio about a trained bison named Cody who had a long movie career. “He’s saying ‘bison,’ right?” Barb asked. “It sounded like ‘bicyclist’ at first.” There are probably a few of them in the movies, too.

Barb’s at work today because the DMV transferred her back into processing from customer service, at least for the time being. Apparently her work in processing was so blindingly amazing that the director of DMV herself decreed Barb’s return. She found out about it only yesterday, and isn’t entirely crazy about the move, but if there’s an upside it’s that she doesn’t have to physically go back to the office on the second floor; she works from her desk in customer service. She also has the opportunity to put in overtime, which is why she’s at work on a Saturday. “It’s a hundred fifty bucks,” Barb chanted as we pulled out of the driveway this morning. “Gotta think of it that way: A hundred fifty bucks.”

I was at the tech school this morning because I had to finish a project for class. It turned out I had way more than one project, but I’ll get to that shortly. The project required that I use a software tool found only in the computer lab, which my instructor told me was in room 220; several other students told me it was at the top of the escalator. Sure enough, when I stepped off the escalator this morning I found myself smack in front of the door to room 220, bolted tightly shut. I could see through the window that all the lights were off and nobody was inside.

Instead of throwing up my hands and going home, I found a telephone and called the computer help desk. To my surprise, somebody answered. “When is the computer lab open today?” I asked the guy on the other end of the phone.

“We’re open until one,” he answered.

“Okay, then — where is the computer lab?”

“It’s in the library,” he said, in a tone of voice that suggested I was a double-clueless dweeb, which, in effect, I was, because I had to ask him, “Where’s the library?” It was down the hall from the top of the escalator, and the computers there didn’t have the software I needed, but the computer help guy suggested I use the computers in the classroom at the end of the hall.

Finally seated at a computer where I had all the requisite software at my disposal, I finished my homework, writing a computer program that calculated sales tax. When I uploaded the finished project to my instructor’s virtual blackboard, though, I happened to notice that the homework I’d done last Tuesday night wasn’t there.


I wasn’t able to save last Tuesday’s homework because I didn’t have my data stick with me, and I wasn’t able to e-mail it to myself, either. It was not retrievable. To make sure I got credit for it, I would have to do it all over, so I probably cussed a lot more than I first let on. It would have looked a lot more like the lightning bolts, black clouds and skulls-and-crossbones that sarge uses when he chews out Beetle Bailey.

After the air cleared and I was able to think something beyond thoughts of stomping all over computers, I hunched over the keyboard and pounded out three more assignments, debugged them, and uploaded them in a record sixty-two minutes, a record only because it was the second time I wrote the programs and I knew them by heart.

The news came on the radio as I started the car to drive home; they were talking about the Palestinian elections. It was the same story I thought I’d been having trouble reading earlier this morning, but this time I was having trouble making sense of what I was hearing. Or not. Maybe the world really is weirder than I can know.

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

As I was re-folding the dish towels and dish washing rags this evening, it occurred to me once again that the result of asking the boys to fold clothing or towels always ends up looking as though they’re trying to get us avoid asking them ever again. Anybody can fold a t-shirt, but it takes a special kind of dedication to fold it so that it ends up with more wrinkles than it would have had if it had been wadded up.


After almost two months without going to a garage sale or estate sale, we finally got an auctioning fix — and very nearly left it without buying anything, which, as anybody will tell you, is some kind of bad juju. But we stuck it out until about four in the afternoon and finally walked away with a few items, and not just any old thing to say we drew blood, but with pretty much exactly what we wanted. Nearly.

Usually when we go to a public auction we walk through the tables and find at least one thing we fall in love with, and we’ll stay until the bitter end to make sure we get a bid in on it. After a two-month lull because of the holidays, we figured there would be plenty to see and bid on. We were stunned to find there wasn’t a single thing we absolutely had to have. That was still all right; we go there to watch the crowds and visit with other people, and not first and foremost to buy stuff. Still, it didn’t seem right to leave without taking something home.

Barb eventually got what she wanted. She spotted a set of glass jars for the kitchen countertop, but the auctioneer didn’t get around to the table they were on until two in the afternoon, and just before he got to the jars he took a break so they could sell cars. When they drive the cars in, we take a nap or read the paper; it’s easily the most boring part of the afternoon. When they started selling the good stuff again, it seemed as though they were pinging every item around the jars she wanted. Eventually she gave up hope and went to see what was up for sale at another table, and right after she left, I caught the auctioneer’s eye and said I’d start the bidding on those jars. He put them up and I put in the winning bid for Barb.

Funnily enough, when I caught up with her, she’d won a bright red water pitcher she’d had her eye on.

I got what I wanted, sort of. I bid on a packet of old, neat-looking post cards, and he let me pick two more packets from the box for the same price before he started another lot of cards. I was pawing through the cards I’d won, only half-paying attention to him when he pointed at me and said something like, “You’re the winner on the last bid, sir. Would you like to start the bidding for me on these?” And I figured, sure, I’d help him out, so I started the bidding. And ended it. Nobody else wanted those cards, so I had to pay double for “half-paying attention.” Let that be a lesson to you.

Monday, January 30th, 2006

I woke up to fresh snow on the ground this morning, a much more satisfyingly wintery scene than the cold, gray rain we had for the last two days. This month can’t decide whether it wants to be January or March.


“Could you help me get some soup?” a woman asked me at the corner of State and Mifflin Streets this noon.

I glanced down State Street at the cafés and said something like, “Well, I know where you can get a pretty good sandwich, but soup — I don’t know ....”

I can be pretty dense some times.

“It’s two ninety-nine at the mission for soup,” she explained, and that’s when the light went on over my head.

I run hot and cold on the idea of passing out cash to strangers on the street. I don’t make a lot of money, but between my paycheck, my wife’s and the monthly check I get from the military, we have enough for the whole family to live comfortably, if not in style. I certainly don’t have enough extra, though, to hand it out on the street. I don’t see why anybody should get money for begging, but I hate to see people go hungry. I haven’t come to a final determination on the idea, in other words, so sometimes I shake my head and press on, and sometimes I flip out my wallet and cut loose a dollar or two. Or three, as this woman was asking.

“Could I have four?” she asked, when I handed over the three.

The original question made me question my feelings, but I was genuinely puzzled by the follow-up. “You said it was two ninety-nine,” I pointed out.

“It’s a dollar fifty to catch the bus across town,” she said. I pried another dollar out of my wallet, wondering if she was going to hit me up for the fifty cents while she was at it, but no — she spotted the two-dollar bill folded in the corner. “Could I have the two-dollar bill as a souvenir?” Now she wanted a souvenir? Getting pretty brassy, don’t you think?

“Sorry, that’s my souvenir,” I said, and turned away.

Every episode in charity is a character-building experience. My oldest son would have taken her to a restaurant and fed her a bowl of soup; that’s probably what I should’ve done, but she didn’t reek of alcohol and I was in a hurry, so I threw her some money. She asked for more. Am I likely to do that again? Doesn’t seem likely. Is that a poor attitude? Charity would say so. Will it turn me into a scowling geezer who answers my own questions, as if I were Donald Rumsfeld? Oh, god, I hope not.


I got a chance to perform minor surgery on myself this Friday; how many times do you get to say that? A more important question, however, would probably be, “Why would you brag about it?”

(If you’re squeamish, you might want to skip on down.)

I started out by simply trimming a toenail that was painfully gnarled, rotten and cracked from foot fungus; I figured to cut as much of the rotten nail away as necessary to restore my toe to comfort. It turned out that the pain came from one corner of the nail that was ingrown. Geeze, I hate it when they do that.

I had to dig out the corner with the little steel pick on the end of the file that folds up into the nail clippers; then I pulled it back with a pair of tweezers and tried to cut it out with the clippers, but it kept snapping back into the flesh of my toe. That smarts a little bit, let me tell you.

I could put up with that only a couple times before I hobbled to my tool box and found a needle-nose pliers with teeth that went all the way to the end that could grab hold of the toenail without slipping. When I had firmly locked on to the corner of my toenail, I cut it out with a cuticle scissors and could breathe a sigh of relief once again. That was one vicious little chunk of toenail, too; looked like a bloody arrowhead.

How was that? Feel a little woozy now?


We didn’t know what to rent from the movie store this weekend, so we ended up grabbing a wild card off the rack. I had read good reviews about Serenity, a space opera that neither Barb nor Tim had heard of, but they were willing to give it a try, and were both pleasantly surprised. So was I.

The first ten minutes of the film unfold in a series of energetic flashbacks, setting a pace for the rest of the story that’s upset only once or twice when the writers fall back on some really quirky prose that was a little distracting for me, as was the main character’s resemblance to the janitor from the television show Scrubs. (It wasn’t him. There were two or three familiar faces in the show, but nobody you could name.)

Watching Serenity, I got the same sense of seeing something new and different that I got the first time I saw Star Wars (the original one, not the ever-worsening follow-ups). It wasn’t the story that felt new; that was pretty much boiler plate, but the way it was told was fresh and engaging. Really, for a space opera, this was good stuff: Fun to watch, fun to listen to, fun to talk about. Easily worth the price of a movie ticket, a jumbo bucket of popcorn and a tub o’ soda pop.

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

Tim had supper waiting for us when we got home yesterday evening, which was an especially welcome treat because we had only a short time from the moment we arrived until we had to leave to take Bonkers to the vet for a follow-up to his teethectomy. (The vet gave him a clean bill of health, as well as hugs and kisses. Honestly, I’ve never seen such a cuddly vet.)

After our fine grilled-cheese dinner, Tim introduced us to his Master Plan For Success. He visited with his guidance counselor yesterday and began choosing classes for the next school year; his plan is to focus on math and engineering, steering a course to become an architect. After the way he embraced his inner lazy child, it was heartening to see him show a genuine interest in something other than a computer video signal. Just imagine our sons out in the world, one working to strengthen the hearts and souls of Americans, the other to lay the bricks and mortar of the shining cities. Kinda chokes a guy up.

One of the classes he wants to take for a phys ed credit is called “Advanced Conditioning.” Tim says it’s a class of about ten people who, under the watchful gaze of one of the football coaches, seek perfectly sculpted abs and delts. It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger 101: Pumping Iron For Credit. Man, public school has changed a lot since the days when the gym teacher made us run laps around the field house or play kickball in the snow.


Lots of people have told me they’ve been trapped in elevators, but I’ve never been trapped myself. Still haven’t been what you’d call ‘trapped,’ but today I was riding the elevator down when it stopped between floors, waiting a bit as it tried to figure out what to do before it started down again. I didn’t get back on to go up. My Pavlovian response to scary lessons is almost immediate and doesn’t wear off for quite a while. I’ve been taking the stairs for months; now I’ve got an even better reason to walk.

One of my coworkers caught me climbing the stairs from the basement; “Geeze, you’re walking up to seven? How often do you do that?” Every gosh-darned day, Kev. It’s just 132 steps from the basement to the office I work in; I can climb it in three minutes without working hard, and that’s about all the exercise I get in a day, when I’m not wandering the streets of the town on my lunch break, looking for graffiti and old buildings to photograph.


The librarian at the desk in the media department at the Central branch was holding a loud conversation with a patron about the relative merits of DVDs versus video tapes, and there were quite a lot of merits to discuss, as far as he was concerned. A loud librarian is a species I haven’t encountered before; I’ve run into lots of loud visitors in libraries, and many more now that people think nothing of answering their cell phones anywhere at all. If I still went to church, it wouldn’t surprise me now to see somebody answer their phone during the service.

Where’s the worst place you could hold a conversation on a cell phone? Certainly not the library, and it’s practically a given you won’t see a movie without hearing at least one cell phone ring. Most people with cell phones talk while they’re driving, even where it’s illegal (it’s not in Wisconsin).


I got out of class early tonight. I guess there’s a lot of time built into each lesson so we can complete our assignments in class, or at least that’s the way it’s turning out. I figured it was due tonight, so I’d better have it ready before class — I came in Saturday to finish my last assignment but a lot of people were working on it tonight as the instructor hopscotched from one desk to the next, helping people out and reviewing homework for credit.

There was nothing left for me to do because next week’s assignment hadn’t been taught yet. I called Barb and begged her to come get me early. Please please pleasepleaseplease come save me! She must’ve been seriously bummed; she’d been looking forward all day to watching Fearless Leader deliver the state of the union address live on television tonight. Bet you a nickel she taped it to watch later. (I don’t know why she bothers; it makes her steaming mad to watch Bush talk about anything. He could appear in downtown Madison tomorrow handing out free bales of cash and she wouldn’t get any because she’d be too busy fuming.)

I’ve got to remember to ask her for the cell phone on school nights; a local call from a pay phone costs fifty cents! When in blazing hell did that happen? That’s something like a five hundred percent increase over the price of a call back in the good old days when I had to walk two miles barefoot in the snow to school. And look what it got me: I can’t even figure the percent increase of a phone call twenty-five years later. But seriously, how could they jack it up that much when a can of soda pop still costs ... ah ... okay, nevermind.

Onward to February 06   |    All of 2006!   |    Back to December 05


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