I sleep with…


…the window open and wake, sneezing, with flecks of pollen dancing in the air above my bed, suspended in the morning sunlight that pours over the roofs of the rowhouses across the street.

The electrician was here all morning yesterday, into the early afternoon. The trouble with the bathroom’s electrical power was the result of a loose wire in the GFI outlet. Loose or not, it’s so hard to envision what can actually break the connection, considering that we are talking about inanimate objects sealed up inside a wall. Ed, the electrician, a Russian with a neatly trimmed beard, said that vibration would be enough, and he agreed that the problem’s showing up so soon after the plumbers had been doing work nearby (involving ripping out the bathroom vanity) was unlikely to be coincidental. He corrected the problem, electing to eliminate the GFI and replace it with a regular outlet, since the circuit is protected by the new GFI in the hall. “Perhaps I am s***ing in my pocket” by recommending the cheaper course of action, he laughed. Fine by me, I thought. S*** away. I asked him what he thought about just rewiring the house, which still mostly uses the old and disturbingly primitive-sounding “knob and tube” wires. “I think it make your house look like swiss cheese, but not make it very much safer,” he said. “I mean, I love it, because I like to take trip to Colorado with my wife.” Treep to Colorado weeth my woife. “But you don’t need to spend so much.” Instead, he made a sweep of the house, checking behind outlets that looked recently installed and popping open the basement light fixtures, many of which dangled loosely from barely biting screws. He found a lot of what he called “handyman” work; some of it he recommended redoing, though some of it (the refrigerator outlet, for one) he thought was perfectly safe, if “non-standard.”

His work style is to make the rounds with me first so that he can show me what he finds and frighten me into approving the work. As he probed the outlet in the guest room, where my brother is living right now, he asked about A.’s work, and I gave an abbreviated description in which I mentioned that one point of the research project is to monitor for changes in bird mating and other patterns, since these might result from pollutants and — I think this was the term I used — “warming temperatures.” Ed sat back on his haunches and turned to face me with a glint in his eye that I have come to recognize over the years, and I thought, oh, brother, here it comes. “So you really believe humans can make climate warmer?” We pussyfooted around the subject for a little while — I played the well, I’m no expert hand, although I did say that it seems pretty clear that the climate is getting warmer and that humans can reduce the speed of the change by altering some of our practices. Eventually, we got to his real concern: “so you think we should feel as guilty as television says?” I hadn’t thought about this slant on the whole warming-denial thing, that some of the resistance — just like some of the resistance on various civil rights-related subjects — comes from this sense of but I didn’t do it. Resistance to admitting wrongdoing or mistakes seems epidemic in this country just now, with one prominent example set by none other than the president, but wait — aren’t we doing it? Warming the planet, I mean. This isn’t like slavery, about which it is possible — though not particularly compelling as a reason for, say, opposing affirmative action — to say that was more than 100 years ago, I’ve never owned slaves. “Is not our fault BGE uses coal for power,” he explained. “I can’t help it, so I’m not going to feel guilty.”

Around 1:30, Ed’s next appointment was calling to see where he was, so two projects were left undone. He’ll return next Wednesday and that should be the last of the electrical work. I spent the rest of the afternoon mucking around with a spreadsheet analyzing the costs and revenues involved in renting out the house. I’m not sure how best to think about this stuff, but I consider that the “product” we’re selling is a year’s lease on the house, so it makes sense to me to think in terms of “rental years.” Assuming we have a tenant in here as soon as possible after moving, our rental years will be August-July. Figuring on the rent I quoted to the still-prospective tenants I mentioned a week or two ago, and assuming that property management will cost about a tenth of the monthly rent, I also factored in what I’m thinking of “start-up costs,” i.e., all of this electrical and plumbing work (and general contracting for the bathroom and a railing on the front steps still to come), work that we wouldn’t be doing right now if we weren’t going to rent the house out. Figured this way, and assuming that I’m estimating costs right (ha!), it looks like the first year of renting will put us in the red something like $1,500-$2,000. I suppose it’s not so bad for a business to cost money the first year, and of course rental income isn’t the real point of this venture, the point is for us to be able to afford to keep the house long enough for it appreciate in value. Considered this way, I’m fairly confident we’ll be in the green when we sell. Still, it is a disappointment to go from thinking of the rental as an additional source of income to realizing that it will be costing us money instead, at least in the first year.

Around 6 p.m., a friend stopped by and we drove down to the Mt. Vernon First Thursday celebration. My friend had just come from a car dealership where he’d been having brake work done, and he was steaming. He’d needed new rotors. Frustratingly, he’d already had them replaced once before and believed them to be under a lifetime warranty, a belief that the service manager at the dealership did not share. There had been an argument. “I told him, where I come from, the customer is king,” my friend said. The argument did not go his way, although he’s going to gather up his old paperwork and see what recourse he has. But this “customer is king” thing: I hear this all the time, people waxing indignant about how some business treated them. Isn’t the customer always right?, they huff. I think people misunderstand the concept. We’re talking about a strategy for building reputation and customer base, not a constitutional protection. A business can decide as a matter of policy that its staff should behave as if the customer is always right, and this might be a good idea for a business trying to make a name for itself, but I can also see a business not minding if its employees act on a determination that a particular customer is actually wrong. What if the customer mistakenly believes he should be getting something for free? How does the business benefit from behaving as if that customer is right? If you don’t feel that a business treated you fairly, you shouldn’t do business with them anymore (and if they’re doing something illegal, you should report them). But just because you’re a customer doesn’t mean you automatically get to win every argument. The argument must have merit, too. The rule can probably be restated as when it’s not clear whether the business or the customer is right, the benefit of the doubt should usually go to the customer, unless it establishes an unprofitable precedent. Although I suppose that customers you absolutely want to keep are always right. Make of that what you will.

My friend and I wandered Mt. Vernon Square for a little while, catching fragments of the music from the stage, waiting in immensely long lines for plastic cups of beer, and enjoying the crisp, clear evening. The tulip bed in the northern arm of the square glowed pinkish red in the low-angle sunlight. I ran into a few classmates from my recently concluded grammar class. One of these is going on the program’s two-week trip to Florence this summer. She said she is nervous and I told her about my essentially spiritual experience visiting Italy when I was 20. I returned from the trip recharged in a way, my faith in humanity high, basically just because a bunch of strangers were extremely hospitable, plus good wine was so cheap. I’m not sure I convinced her, but I don’t know how much traveling she’s ever done.

It was nice to be back on the square. When I first moved to Baltimore, I took an apartment on Park Avenue, just two blocks from Mt. Vernon square, and I got used to having ready access to the many festivals and special events that take place there. I lived close enough to walk, but not so close that the noise would keep me up if I turned in early. I decided then and still feel that the square must be one of the most beautifully laid-out public spaces in the world. I suppose that I have neither the architectural knowledge nor quite enough travel experience to really argue such a claim, but I do know that I have always found it somehow exhilarating to walk under those grand buildings, the monument looming overhead.

My friend and I picked up dinner from Thairish and drove back to my house in time for The Office, the only TV show I make any particular effort to watch. I read somewhere recently that the “pained silence” is the show’s real specialty, as opposed to the shiny friendly hilarity that most traditional sitcoms aim for. I think that, if you caught last night’s episode, you will agree that they really hit this mark and then some. There were points when I just wanted to look away. The show doesn’t make use of laugh tracks (a point they use rather well in a series of promotional spots making fun of shows that do, with the tagline “you’ll know when to laugh”), but there are long aching minutes of the show where the only appropriate sound effect would be that of a train wrecking.