New Feature: Bird Camp Dispatches

So that you don’t have to waste time scrolling down through my diary entries to get to the good stuff, I’ve decided to make A.’s Bird Camp reports a separate feature. This will also make it possible to read them all at once, by clicking on the “Bird Camp” category in the left sidebar. I’m not going to pull the past Bird Camp passages out of the diary entries in which they appeared, I’m just going to tag those entries “Bird Camp” as well.

This feature will be “occasional,” meaning I’ll post a new dispatch whenever I have enough new information to warrant it.

As I think I mentioned, I’m also going to make an “About Bird Camp” page, to provide a little more background and context for the dispatches. I’m going to start on that this weekend, at which point I will likely discover many things that I’m unclear on and that I’ll have to ask A. about. Hopefully I hope that it will be up within a week or so.

Bird Camp Dispatch 1


A. checked in from Flagstaff yesterday, the town closest to Bird Camp and where the crew gets “shore leave” every nine days or so for laundry, showers, square meals and the like. (The research project rents a block of motel rooms where everyone stays.) On top of the usual fun, this break also saw the crew members who will be trapping small mammals fitted for the respirators they will wear to protect themselves from hanta virus. When A. called, she was just waiting for everyone to meet up for the return drive to camp.

So far, 14 out of the eventual 24 field staff have reported. Next week, A.’s predecessor, who has been helping get the camp set up and giving A. some last pointers for the season, will depart, allowing A. to finally assume the mantle of camp commandant all on her own. Meanwhile, the crew members that have arrived are being trained in bird identification, nest location, field navigation and the other skills necessary for the project’s work. Training has been hampered a little in the last few days by extremely high winds, making any bird calls inaudible. It’s been cold, too, in the 20s each morning but warming as the sun gets higher in the sky. At those temperatures, you need to keep your water bottle in your sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. This is a cold snap, though; it was warmer when A. and the rest of the crew first arrived, and A. hopes it will warm up again soon.

Though the crew is not yet fully staffed, research has commenced. So far, the crew has found about 20 nests out of the 800-1,000-nest goal for the season. Most of the birds are still in the building and laying phase, though, so there hasn’t been any nestling or egg-mass measuring yet. “I’m hoping to to start probing my first eggs later this week,” A. says, referring to the process whereby a needle-like instrument is inserted into an egg – without harming it – to collect various health data.

Among the things A. isn’t hoping to do is shoot squirrels, although it’s a distinct possibility. For the first time this year, the project is eliminating as many predators as possible from some of its enclosed areas plots in order to isolate other possible causes of “nest failure.” They can’t do anything to prevent predation by other birds, but they can try to get rid of as many small mammals as possible. This is being done mainly through trapping, “but squirrels don’t trap well,” A. says, which means that someone has to shoot them, instead. Right now, A.’s predecessor is taking care of this with the camp rifle, a .22 caliber varmint piece, and there’s a chance that all of the necessary squirrel-shooting will be done before she leaves next week. If not, though, it may be A., lying on her belly, waiting for a squirrel to get careless (maybe by being third on a match?), squeezing, squeezing, bang. Hard to imagine, I know. She’s having a little trouble with the idea herself.

Two days ago…

…I finally got around to calling a property management company and was pleased to hear the same things from them that I’d heard from various friends and acquaintances who know a little about the world of landlording: they charge 10 percent of the annual gross, which is a nice chunk of change but, if I’m understanding correctly, gives them an incentive to find new tenants pretty quickly, should the need arise, and which covers various administrative tasks including billing and bill-paying. They bill by the hour if they need to perform/arrange any maintenance. On top of that, they make recommendations concerning possible improvements that will raise the rental value, and they keep a stable of contractors as one option for having that work done. After flailing about on my own so far, it’s nice to consider putting myself in the hands of professionals who will at least have a plan and a sense of how these things go.

Meanwhile, now that I’m poised to become a landlord, I was interested to read a Baltimore Sun story a few days back about a proposed City Council bill that would end the fairly Baltimore-specific practice of landlords dumping evictees’ belongings in the street, which they currently are allowed to do “as long as it isn’t blocking traffic.” The bill would instead require landlords to give notice of the date of eviction, store the evictees’ belongings for three days, and pay for disposing of unclaimed property themselves. This seems fair enough – if a little daunting to dabblers like myself – considering that, currently, disposing of this stuff falls to the department of public works to the tune of some $800,000 annually, underwritten by the city’s taxpayers. It is hard to see why private businesses – i.e., the landlords – shouldn’t have to pay for this business operation themselves, although sometimes the crusaders on issues like these fail to understand that when you raise the cost of doing business (e.g., by requiring landlords to pay for this storage and disposal), businesses tend to raise the costs of their products (i.e., rent).

But it is a strange and disturbing and somewhat medieval-feeling practice, this dumping of a household’s effects by the curb. Walking this city, I have often come upon these piles being picked over by passersby. Sometimes there is someone who appears to be guarding it, but usually there is not. People who are new to the city sometimes marvel at the sight, saying they’ve never seen such a thing before. I’m not sure if any other cities allow this, but I have heard that Baltimore is a relatively “landlord friendly” city. The Sun article takes this view, observing that evictions in Baltimore – which “can take months elsewhere” – can proceed “as quickly as 16 business days after [tenants] miss a rent payment.” I’d be curious to hear how many evictions are executed that quickly in Baltimore. An acquaintance of mine who is a semi-professional landlord is under the impression that you can’t evict anyone sooner than two months after first filing papers on them at rent court. Even that is relatively fast, compared to places like New York, where I’ve heard there is a minimum delay of something like six months. But you can’t even get bulk trash picked up in this city within 16 days. Maybe this “16 days” thing is only technically true as the law is written, but isn’t really enforced. I imagine that the officials in charge of enforcement probably have a lot of leeway to affect the speed of a process like this.

Of course the sympathies of all good-hearted people are with the tenants in this matter. Mine always were, although a conversation with my landlording acquaintance gave some new perspective. He rents apartments at a price point such that they appeal to lower-income residents (although I’ve been inside some of them and he is definitely no slum lord – someone has to rent to this income range, after all), who of course are more likely to come up short, more likely to move around a lot, and more likely to have less to lose from things like black marks on their credit reports. He tells me that there is a certain proportion of tenants in this city who “give themselves rent reductions” by ceasing payment two months before they plan to move and then just abandoning the property at the end, taking any belongings they care about with them and leaving, as my friend puts it, “a bunch of junk for you to get rid of.” Do-gooder types who are given to concern over credit ratings and who take provisions in legal contracts seriously, at face value (such as me), can have a little difficulty grasping the fact that, really, a landlord has little appealing recourse if someone just disappears on the rent like this. Legally that person is obliged to pay up, and claims against that person can be prosecuted in a court of law, but considering that – in my friend’s case – two months’ outstanding rent might add up to only $1,000, the hassle of going after someone might not be worth it, compared to other business activities like repairing/maintaining the property, finding new tenants, and so on. Even assuming you can find the tenant, which can’t always or even very often be easy, they may simply have no money. Who will pay your court costs then?

Oh, well, this will be for my management company to worry about, I guess.

New Additions

Check out the “pages” in the left sidebar, if you haven’t already. I’ve added “Montana Reading List” and “Things to do in Baltimore” pages, in addition to my exhaustive “abouts.” (And there will be more: I’m working on an “About Bird Camp,” which I hope to have up in the next week or so.)

It’s good sleeping…

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…weather these days, perfectly cool with a few windows open and the fan going. Sleeping with the windows open isn’t something I’m used to; in fact, this is my first season of it in quite a while. Since my early 20s, I’ve always lived either in centrally heated/cooled buildings, or ground-floor apartments on busy city streets. Or here, in this little house, which – while it isn’t downtown, while the neighborhood has its pastoral elements – isn’t as quiet at it looks. It’s not particularly loud, either, but I have a sleep-related problem such that a little loud music from a car’s speakers or the sound of people yelling foolish things in the middle of the night makes me tense and apprehensive that it will continue or start up again later, and the old familiar dread comes over me.

What familiar dread? Here’s a paragraph I wrote for my recently-concluded grammar class on the subject. (It’s a little stilted-sounding because it was written in response to an assignment requiring the use of things like “parallel complex appositives” and “sentence fragments with strong syntactic relationships to the sentences preceding them.” If you’d like the “key,” it’s here. I have a shiny new quarter for anyone who can find where my paragraph diverges from the assigned requirements in that key.)

(1) In college I had a neighbor who forever shook my confidence in being able to fall asleep when I wanted to and who in other ways lessened my faith in humanity, turning me bitter and leaving me scarred. [FN 1] (2) The rule that you couldn’t get a single room until after freshman year was widely understood, but the fact that I had taken my second semester off while working at a record store was an extenuating factor. (3) After all, though I was technically still a freshman, sophomore status loomed after the holiday break – and I would be the kind of sophomore who, it was important to me for everyone to understand, would chafe at being stuck in a freshman dorm. (4) A quiet freshman dorm, no less, a living situation all out of whack with my self-perceived ebullience and lust for life. (5) Standing in the hall outside my new single room on move-in day, I met my new neighbor, Stacy, a tall, thick, broad-shouldered Jersey girl who had wild curly hair and a loud, braying laugh. (6) Who also – I soon learned – had an essentially nocturnal lifestyle. (7) Every night that semester, as I went to bed, I knew that it would only be a matter of time. (8) That – just as I would be growing drowsy – the mufflerless roar of Stacy’s rusted Camaro would announce her arrival home from the bars.

Yes, Stacy ruined me for sleeping, possibly forever (although maybe it would be more accurate to say “when I’m not tired enough” – I don’t remember having much of a problem sleeping when I worked on boats, for example, even though I drank coffee pretty much continuously and certainly wasn’t keeping to the “regular sleep schedule” recommended by experts). She did this by not just being loud, but by being loud in ways that struck me as stupid and pointless. It’s not like she was practicing for her cello debut at Carnegie Hall, she was just playing techno music and laughing like a zebra into her phone. Once, she and the gay Serbian exchange student got stoned and ordered pizza at around 1 in the morning. I heard the order go in and wanted to fling myself from the window: on our rural campus, the one pizza restaurant could take hours to deliver sometimes, so I knew I was in for a whole night of their chortling and chatter. Finally, when the pizza came, they had to stop talking long enough to shove it into their mouth holes, but they were so ravenous at that point that I could hear their chewing. They were nice enough about it when I finally poked my head into the hall where they were sitting to say something. I’d brought it up before. “Oh, yeah, you have an early class,” she said sheepishly, her cheeks shiny with cheese grease. (I was in immersion German that semester, a daylong class that kicked off at 8:00 a.m. every morning.) Usually, people who are being loud don’t realize it or certainly aren’t thinking about the fact that they are keeping someone up. My theory is that they are just the loudest people they know but assume everyone else acts like they do, so they have no idea what they sound like through the wall.

So, ever since, inane conversation and stupid music [FN 2] heard at night as I am drifting off to sleep immediately sets me on edge. This is the third spring since we moved here; the past two, we just went pretty much straight from having the windows closed for the winter to installing a window-unit air conditioner when it finally became too warm for two people to sleep comfortably in the closed-up room. But this year, I’ve taken a different approach. There is something I used to dabble in that has become more and more of a regular thing. It used to be something I did only occasionally, when I felt like it, but, gradually, it’s become an everyday thing, something I’ve come to depend on. I hope you won’t judge me.

I wear earplugs to sleep.

I didn’t need them last night, though, when I was asleep almost before getting into bed. I’d worked a twelve-hour day, which is bad, but not as bad as it sounds, since the reason was that I was holding myself to the fire to finally finish editing the massive policy paper I’ve mentioned here before. In the morning, when the boss asked what its “status” was, I’d told him that I could finally commit to finishing the thing before leaving for the day. I figured that this would involve working late, but I just wanted to be done with it. I’d finished text edits last week, and so yesterday’s work involved final layout and all of the millions of small things that go into getting a paper like this into “camera-ready” shape: tweaking the layout, updating in-text source citations after having to rearrange the order of the bibliography (are they not teaching alphabetical order anymore?), getting Microsoft Word to let me put my pictures and graphs where I want them, and so on. Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., I was skimming the text to make sure that acronyms were spelled out on first usage but never again (bet you never thought of someone doing that the last time you were reading a technical document – what, did you think elves made it so internally consistent?), and the end was in sight. There was some trouble with the spell check, i.e., after I sat through the spell checker’s asking me about pretty much every acronym in the paper and every last name in the ten-page bibliography, Word quit “unexpectedly” (uh, yeah…) and I had to do it again. On the plus side, this delayed me just enough that the boss left before I did, which is always nice but, as you can see by the fact that — this time — it required working until 9:00 p.m., not the kind of thing I want to try to pull off every day.

Preview: Bird Camp update tomorrow!

1. See, right there, I’m exaggerating a little – the experience didn’t leave me bitter and scarred, I just needed some parallel verbal phrases and nothing else leaped to mind. Anyway, this is what I mean by “stilted.” It’s not that using artful syntax necessarily makes it sound stilted, but syntax is closely related to the ideas being expressed (or it needs to be, anyway), and so sometimes the thing you would write next if you were just working on something personal cannot possibly be contorted to contain the assigned elements.

2. “Stupid music” is a technical term for any music that’s keeping me up; techno and modern “R&B” qualify most easily, not least because being a fan of this kind of music suggests you just don’t know much about the world, possibly including the fact that there are other people in it.

It was a chilly…

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…walk to work in shorts Monday morning, but what could I do? My pants were at the office. As I mentioned earlier, with what seemed like the advent of hot weather, I decided to leave my work clothes at work and change there. (The car is currently rusting in someone’s driveway in Montana, so I walk to work, which means that – during the true summer heat – I arrive at work looking like I’ve been dipped in water.) Then the hot weather went away. Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering if I should send out an email at work, letting everyone know of my new sartorial practice. Closed doors don’t mean a whole lot to most people where I work – or, rather, they mean that you should say “sorry to bother you, I saw your door was closed, but…” when you barge in anyway – so at some point I just know I’m going to find myself barring the door with my body, half-dressed, explaining what I’m doing to someone who just wanted to ask a quick question about uploading something to the web site. Assuming I bar the door in time. Then there’s the fact that, with our office layout (two rowhouses), it’s possible to go the whole day without seeing some of my coworkers; there are some people I only see first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. Will they think I’ve switched to working in clothes more suited to a Sunday afternoon bike ride? On the other hand, if I never see anyone anyway, what does it matter what I wear?

Throughout the day, as I worked in my office overlooking the intersection of 25th and Calvert, I was treated to an incredible number of sirens on passing emergency vehicles. I always hear some, since I’m only about six blocks from the fire department’s station number 12 in the 800 block of east Calvert, plus both Calvert and 25th streets are pretty major thoroughfares, but yesterday it was like they were never going to stop. I went to the Baltimore Sun‘s web site just now and I wonder if the article associated with this headline might have some explanation: 4 men shot, 3 fatally; city homicide toll at 100. I assume all of that happened yesterday, but there doesn’t seem to be an actual article to go with the headline, at least as of 7 a.m. this morning. Or maybe that’s all that anyone thinks is worth reporting at this point. Yes, the sky remains blue as well. (Update: the article is now up here.)

Speaking of what a great place Baltimore is to live, the coworker with whom I’d been discussing how awful but common it is to see area kids fighting or abusing each other on the street came in with a story from her weekend. She and her boyfriend had been to the farmer’s market on Sunday and decided to drive up to Belvedere Square afterwards (where, for those of you who don’t live here, a yuppie-ish clientele can enjoy gourmet grocery stores, wine bars, and little restaurants, all in a little pedestrian mall). Their mistake was taking Greenmount/York, which is one of the ten streets most likely to make you wonder why you still live here. Stopped at a light, she saw a group of about a dozen young high schoolers suddenly attack another boy about their age. The fight spilled out into the street. I’d like to have ended that sentence “stopping traffic, as passersby broke up the fight,” but that doesn’t really happen here. The poor kids of this city essentially have the value of litter in most people’s minds: a nuisance, but not a big one if you learn to look away. So, of course, everyone just kept driving by. Really, though, I can’t say I blame them, under the circumstances. I’d think twice about intervening with a group of upper elementary schoolers behaving this way in this city, and these guys were a lot older and bigger than elementary schoolers. Besides, a bar brawling type I used to know in the Coast Guard once told me he’d rather be attacked by 15 than by 2 or 3, since, with 15, they’re so cramped together that they mainly end up hitting each other and don’t have any force if they do connect.

I’ll take his word for it.

Then, as I was walking home, I passed the always crowded and incredibly filthy bus stop by the gas station on 33rd near Greenmount just in time to hear a young woman – who appeared to be in charge of about three children – scream “shut up!” at one of the children. A little further down the block, another young woman was crossing the street behind me, and the three-year-old walking with her apparently wasn’t moving fast enough for her. “Come on, you little -!” Some might say she showed restraint by not finishing the sentence, but you have to wonder about someone who accuses a small child of being “little.” Anyway, anyone see any patterns here, with implications for at least the next generation or so, no matter how many mayors pledge to reduce violence in this violent little town?


After I got home from work, I gave myself a haircut. Every few years I get into this phase where I want extremely short hair. Some people call it a shaved head, although I once went through an actual razor phase and I’d like to keep my terms precise. My current practice is merely to use electric barber’s clippers without the plastic guard. (Using a razor is too time-consuming.) It’s not to everyone’s taste, but for some reason it’s always been an ideal look of mine. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit upset to wake up and find myself cue-ball bald one day. No hairs, just a head.

Possible explanation: I was not able/allowed to watch much TV throughout most of my early years. Maybe Mr. Clean featured prominently in one of the first commercials I ever saw. I have the earrings, too. I was about to write “although I prefer to associate this [i.e., the earring-wearing] with my sailorly heritage (among other things, I am named after a sea captain),” but then I looked up Mr. Clean on wikipedia and found out that he’s supposed to be a sailor, too. Maybe the venerable corporate mascot is imprinted on me in some primal way that modern science can never hope to understand, but better him than the Quaker Oats guy.

[The cleaning product’s] mascot is the character Mr. Clean, a muscular, tanned, bald man who cleans things very well. According to the company, his image is supposed to be that of a sailor, although most people think he is a genie based on his earring, folded arms, and tendency to magically appear at the appropriate time. Mr. Clean has always smiled on the packaging, except for a brief time in the mid 1960’s when he was frowning on the package. He also has never talked.

I’d give anything (well…) to see a picture of the scowling version, but even more intriguing is to think about why there was one. Was the scowl in response to some miscalibrated marketing research, or was the company saying something? Let’s see, the mid-1960s: the Vietnam War was heating up, Malcolm X was killed, civil rights marchers were being beaten and menaced with dogs on the television. That’s a lot to scowl about right there, but maybe Mr. Clean’s personal life just wasn’t going well and it was only a coincidence.

Lately I’ve been doing some freelance work for a new client, some very basic stuff, really just proofreading and offering suggestions on a web site (but probably with more in-depth stuff to come), and it’s fun to be stretching my brain on a subject I’ve never dealt with before. As I come to what I’m sure are the most elementary realizations about the subject, I find myself fantasizing about being the outsider who comes up with a solution that no one else has thought of. All of the engineers and programmers, sitting around the meeting table, nodding their heads and smiling, saying “that’s a good idea.” Whether this could ever actually happen is an open question, but, either way, it’s nice to be branching out a little.

Across the street, as I typed up these notes, someone was mowing his lawn with a weed-whacker. We used to do that, too, but finally Kirk (not his real name), the most persistent of the local itinerant yard guys who work the neighborhood, caught me at just the right time with just the right pitch: late on a still-busy Sunday, the last dusk of a weekend when I’d sworn to myself that I would mow the lawn, this guy knocks on my door and offers to do it for four dollars. Since then, he’s kept us as customers with the pricing genius already apparent: so cheap that you’d almost feel stupid doing it yourself. (As opposed to how lazy I feel, now that I reread that sentence. Ahem.) He’s already been by twice this season – three times actually, if I count the evening he showed up staggering drunk, without his lawnmower, thankfully, drumming up business with the first spring weather. He’d been away all winter in Florida, he told me, which explained the tan, although he seems to get dark enough working shirtless here in Baltimore all summer that this is probably his permanent tint at this point. When I’m paying him, I often have the condescending thought kudos to you for trying to earn an honest living, instead of going out and robbing people, a thought based on assumptions about this city and human nature generally that I’m constantly trying to disown, but there they are.

When A. and I returned home from our wedding last fall with a car full of still-wrapped Christmas wedding presents, Kirk was just pushing his battered old mower past on the sidewalk as we pulled up. He smiled hugely when he learned that we had just gotten married and had to shake our hands to congratulate us. His hand was so weathered and calloused that it felt more like a piece of wood than like human flesh. He told us of being in his brother’s wedding, a few years back. His brother, who worked for a tugboat company, had arranged to be delivered, with his groomsmen, aboard one of the company’s crafts. After the ceremony, he and his bride departed the same way. This wouldn’t be to every bride’s taste, I’m sure, plus there would be all sorts of things you might feel stupid complaining about later if you’d gotten this large an insight into your husband’s psychological makeup this early on. Would it have been safe to wear white, even? Still, I’ve always had a fondness for tugboats so this is definitely the second-best wedding I know of.

Some days I can’t tell if what I’m doing here is writing or merely a compulsion. At least I’m not as compulsive as this guy. In a way I admire him, though – I have always been intrigued by prolific diarists, but I guess that’s different from having to become one. (If you follow that link, make sure you read this comment on the same page.)

And the helicopters circled overhead as I drifted off to sleep, the police sirens howling in the night…

Saturday night was…

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…tiring (any night that involves a limo usually is), so I went easy on myself on Sunday. Merely staying awake all day would be an accomplishment worth celebrating, I decided. Then, out of nowhere, I decided to replace the shelf next to the counter in the kitchen. I think I got the idea when I was drinking coffee in my friend Kevin’s living room on Sunday morning. (I had spent the night rather than try to find my way back through the city to my house in the wee hours of the morning.) Over the past month, he has been in the process of making some pretty extensive renovations to his kitchen, and a table in his living room was piled with tools and spare parts. Idly fingering a keyhole saw, I was suddenly keenly aware of missing A. Similar piles of tools in our house have almost always been her doing, or have at least resulted from projects that were her idea. There have been moments when I have resented how such projects interfered with my very important projects (e.g., lying on the couch reading), but, on Sunday, I would have given anything to hear A. say something like “I’m thinking of tearing out the dining-room ceiling today, want to help?”

Yes, please.

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A. had originally installed the shelf next to the kitchen counter as a place to put our dish rack and thus free up some of our limited counter space.

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The problem was that the shelf was intended for books or office knicknacks and couldn’t withstand so much water dripping onto it. After a few months, the surface grew moldy and began to delaminate.

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I’d noticed a piece of counter material in my parents’ basement when they were moving and had hung onto it. Yesterday, I dragged it out of the lumber room (also known as the gimp room, this is the small room in the front of the basement, just under the sun porch) and set to work. Cutting it was a bit of a challenge, since a lip – what would be the splash guard on a standard installation – gave it an L-shape, but I think I proceeded carefully enough that my fingers were never really in danger, at least not any more than usual when one is using a circular saw, which is to say I’m glad that this stage of the job ended without a trip to the emergency room.

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And that was pretty much it. (This was not an ambitious project.) After making the cut, I painted an unfinished section that would be visible and screwed it into place, and so far it’s doing a fine job of holding up the dish rack.

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To reward myself, I decided to explore the thrilling new variety of corporate chain shops and restaurants in the ground floor of the new condo building on St. Paul between 33rd and 32nd. For lunch, the only real possibility was Chipotle. I’d never been in one before and I can see why they have a bit of a following, although I know I’m supposed to hate the place because there is more than one of them and also the CEO is probably not going to invite me to his Christmas party again this year. Anyway, I guess there must be this standard wisdom in the world of retail food these days that customers need to be given the impression that their food is their creation. So, instead of offering set menu items with standard ingredients (like “Grilled chicken burrito with guacamole”), Chipotle’s menu is modular, consisting of four large panels hanging on the wall behind the counter staff and designed to look like they are printed on brushed steel. You start by specifying whether you want a burrito, a fajita, a “salad,” and something else I’m forgetting. Then you move on to the next panel of the menu, where you decide on chicken vs. steak vs. pulled pork vs. pulled beef vs. “vegetarian,” and then on to the next panel, where you pick out a type of salsa. Choices for possible side dishes and drink prices are listed on the final panel of the menu, for consideration only after the important decisions have been made. The whole set-up reeks of “information design.” Behind the counter, the employees work assembly-line style, just like Subway; also just like Subway, they appear to hate their jobs.

When I walked in, I saw the kind of line that I normally don’t even consider waiting in, but I wanted the experience and knew that a long wait would give me more time to eavesdrop. I didn’t end up hearing anything particularly interesting, although I did witness and play a minor role in the daring rescue of a purse that a woman forgot at a table just outside the large, floor-to-ceiling window that the line snaked past. (I held a place in line for the guy who went to retrieve the purse. Please, please, I don’t think I would use the word hero. Well, if you insist.) My barbacoa burrito (that’s what they call the pulled beef preparation) was good enough. I’ll go back if I have to, but I can’t see going to too much effort to visit this place again. I might cross the street to do so, but only if I already have a walk signal.

Getting out of the house seemed to stir some of the torpor out of my blood and I decided to keep aspiring to greatness and squeeze in some grocery shopping, just some essentials. One thing I bought, as usual, was a bag of salad, and one thing I had to do, as usual, while putting the groceries in the refrigerator, was throw out the old bag of salad, which – again, as usual – had aged past edibility before I could get around to eating it. The bags of salad littering our landfills are a monument to our collective good but empty intentions, or maybe they just show how smart the manufacturers are. I know I should eat salad, but that knowledge mainly seems to manifest in buying some; it doesn’t often carry through to the actual eating part.

I heard from A. briefly on Saturday, calling in from the Rim. She had walked the enclosure whose fence had been damaged by the treefall and it appears that the elk that had been spotted inside has found its own way out. She and a co-worker patched the fence over top of the downed tree as best they could, to keep out any more elk until a contractor can be found to actually remove the tree and repair the fence completely. While they were working on the makeshift fence repair, they were caught in a storm of BB-sized hail. By the time she was calling me, this had changed to snow. (Bird Camp is at about 8,000 feet, for those who are confused by hearing about this type of weather in May in Arizona.) After the call, A. told me, she would head back to camp for the Cinco de Mayo party she had planned.

There would be pinatas.


…was a strange day.

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Not sure what…

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…it is about the bagel business, or about this bagel business in particular, but Sam’s Bagels in Charles Village seems to rotate through the hands of ever-changing but always Asian ownership. One constant is the booming, techno-beat pop music they all play. Maybe a broken radio, frozen on one station, comes with the store. This morning I entered to a Spanish-language version of “The Macarena,” which segued into the techno mix of “Desert Mystery,” a mainstay of the genre almost as common as “What is Love?”. I have only to hear a few bars of these songs and I am reminded of driving from Frankfurt to Milan with my truckdriver cousin, who played this kind of music non-stop. Somehow, it was the perfect soundtrack for seeing the sun rise over Europe’s highways and industrial zones from a truck’s cab while feeling a little lonely and isolated due to not really speaking German and also being 17.

There was a customer lingering by the counter who seemed to have already ordered. I was just about to give my own order when she interrupted.

“Um, can I just get my bagel, please?” The customer sounded incredulous and impatient.

“It’s toasting,” replied the woman working by herself behind the counter. She must have pointed toward the toaster, though I was studying the cream-cheese selection and didn’t see.

“In the microwave?” asked the customer. What she was really asking was is that what you people think “toasting” means? “I actually didn’t need it toasted.”

Obviously, the bagel was actually in a toaster. The clerk retrieved it and started packaging it to go, saying something like “it’s warm from oven anyway.”

“I know,” muttered the customer. “That’s why I didn’t exactly need it toasted.”

Yesterday I finished all of the writing and text edits to the massive policy paper I’ve been working on. This means that, from here on out, I only need to care about how it looks, which is a relief. After work I made my semi-usual stop at Dizzy Issie’s. On CNN, showing on a TV behind the bar, there was a picture of the Queen of England next to a headline reading “Beer and Pizza.” People sure are making a lot of fuss over this woman who got her job by being born, but to each his own, I guess. It is interesting to think of her touring Jamestown… actually, no. No, it’s not interesting at all.

At the bar there was discussion of the logistics of Greg’s and Erin’s wedding, scheduled for Memorial Day weekend in Baton Rouge. A. and I will get into New Orleans that Wednesday. We’ll stay two nights in the French Quarter, then move to a Baton Rouge hotel for the wedding weekend proper. One reason to stay in New Orleans at first is the big night out in the French Quarter scheduled for that Thursday night. Those staying in BR will have to find some way home that night, but A. and I will be able to just toddle along to our hotel. I’d mention which one, but I don’t want a bunch of paparazzi showing up.

My brother found himself at John Waters’s house for a Film Festival-related party last night and reports that the famous director favors Gillette shaving products.

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.