Report on Flagstaff: Getting There

I arrive at BWI at nine a.m. for a ten a.m. flight. If I’d had any bags to check, this would have been a mistake: there are easily two hundred people waiting in the line for check-in with baggage at the Southwest counter. Bagless, I can duck into a separate “line” (actually, there’s no one in it) and I am checked in and free to head for the gate within minutes.

In security, the pregnant women come and go, discussing pregnancy. A new mother pushing a stroller is an elder statesman among them. Everyone quickly establishes how old the baby is. (8 months.) Apparently, he wasn’t even sitting up at Easter, and now look at him. The usual sounds of adoration are made.

“I don’t know what the hell happened to Trent Lott,” says the mean-faced man behind me in the security line. “He’s making nice with Pelosi and the rest of them.”

At the gate, I am one of the last people to join the “C” line, the third and final boarding group on a Southwest flight. This means I am doomed to a middle seat.

“We’re going to be last?” says an old woman in front of me. “Don’t they make allowances for senior citizens?”

“Yes, get out your AARP card,” says a middle-aged woman, standing with her balding, pink-scalped husband. Their hulking sons crowd the door of the jetway.

“Oh, I’m well past that,” says the old woman, mysteriously. (Is there an upper limit for AARP membership now?) “I’m 72.”

“Oh!” says the second woman. “I’m in my 50s, and I would have guessed you were my age.”

Her husband: “I would have guessed 30s.” He does not in the slightest appear to be joking.

The wife: “You have great skin.”

The husband: “And great teeth.” He looks like a dentist, come to think of it.

The wife: “You must hear that all the time.”

“Well, yes, I do,” answers the old woman. “But it’s all genetic, of course,” she continues, the very soul of modesty. Though I suppose these days it’s worth pointing out that it’s not all plastic.

Partway through the flight, Southwest passes out “snack boxes.” Mine contains a plastic pouch of dried fruit, a foil pouch of “shortcake cookies,” and a package of peanut-butter cheese crackers. I stick with my peanut butter sandwich. The flight attendant, who has repeatedly spoken of herself as “the mom of the plane,” makes an announcement.

“We don’t throw food away, so if there’s anything in your snack box you don’t like, just leave it closed and we’re going to come through and collect those. If there’s something you want more of, you can take it then, just give us the stuff you don’t want. Cause we don’t throw food away. Now just so you don’t think we box it up and give it to you – ” (by “you” she is clearly referring to “people who ride our planes”; like many people in the service industry, she thinks of all of her customers as the same person, which is why they get so upset when you don’t understand some process they’re putting you through: they explained it to “you” just yesterday, after all) ” – we actually collect it and give it old folks’ homes, women’s shelters and food banks.” She pauses for the applause that is expected in this country whenever someone announces how virtuous/patriotic/strict at parenting he or she is. The applause comes, on cue.

“Oh,” says the woman sitting next to me, who has been studying a binder that outlines the rules and procedures through which the U.S. Marshall Service can seize financial assets. (Apparently they are able to do so using some feature of the AFT process the rest of us use to pay bills online.) “They don’t box it up and give it to us, they box it up and give it to other people.”

I have 2.5 hours to kill in the Phoenix airport before my shuttle bus to Flagstaff departs. I wander the terminals. In a vending machine, I read the lead USA Today headline: “Troops’ 1-month breaks reduced.” This reminds of the apocalyptic science fiction I used to read in middle school, in which bloated interplanetary empires were depicted as sliding into ruins. This is the kind of headline that one of those writers would have thrown into the background details of the story, to evoke the giant dying slowly, of a thousand cuts. You’re already losing, of course, when such ideas start to seem like the only way to win.

The Phoenix airport, known as “Sky Harbor” (something else that puts me in mind of science fiction stories), is sprawling and small at the same time. There are four terminals (A,B, C and D), separated by a half mile of walkway apiece (with the requisite moving sidewalks), but, when you actually get to one of the terminals, there is often no unused gate at which it is possible to sit in peace and only a relatively small selection of restaurants. Through the tall windows by the moving sidewalk, it just looks hot outside.

My shuttle “bus” turns out to be a van. I am the last one in and must make do with a sort of fold-down jump seat right next to the side doors. Close enough to the side doors that I take a very personal interest in whether those doors are locked. The seat belt is a strange jury-rigged affair that barely stretches far enough to close around me (and I’m svelte) and then prevents me from sitting up all the way, due to where it’s attached behind my back. I spend the whole trip in a mild crouch, braced for death in a fiery crash, a passenger van not being exactly the best choice for high-speed freeway travel. (Their center of gravity moves up and to the rear, the more you load them – in a bus, you might walk away from a highway accident, but, in a van of this sort, you will almost certainly die.) For this I’m paying more than Greyhound? But at least they pick you up at the airport, otherwise I’d have had to take a cab to the Greyhound station.

We battle our way out of the city, through traffic-choked freeways and past utterly uninteresting subdivisions and strip malls. My seat belt never once locks as our frenetic driver works the brakes.

Near Camp Verde, firmly in the desert, with the old stagecoach road winding through the dusty hills below the highway, we stop at Burger King for bathrooms and sustenance before the final hour’s drive into Flagstaff. (The locals just say “Flag.”) I fall into conversation with a local, who then points out the natural features as we draw closer to town. To get to Flagstaff, the highway climbs up to the Mogollon Rim and onto the Colorado Plateau, where Flag sits 7,000 feet above sea level. The junipers give way to pines; the ground turns from dust to green. On a far hillside sits a rusted-out 1920s-era automobile, perhaps most recently used for target practice.

A. meets me at the shuttle-bus stop at the train station, carrying a six pack.


I lurched through the predawn darkness, pouring sweat, laboring up hills, trying not to lose control of my limbs on the way down hills. I guess you really can lose a lot in a week where running is concerned. Also, getting up this early again: I was befuddled and dim-witted with sleepiness at the gym. I wondered if people could tell how confused I felt. It’s just a cycle I have to get back into, getting up early enough that I need to go to bed early enough that I can get up early enough again.

I stopped at the drycleaner on the way to work with a load of shirts. I used to take pride in ironing the things myself, which I’m perfectly capable of doing. [FN 1] But I lost interest in doing it about a year ago, which meant after awhile that I was simply taking pride in not going to a drycleaner, even if my shirts were wrinkled anyway. I go to the Mr. Nifty on Greenmount, drycleaner to custodians and cops and firefighters. (Once, an imposing man wearing a shirt and tie and a pistol on his hip asked me where I’d gotten my jacket, which felt like a compliment.) On Wednesday, after we had finished our transaction, the clerk pointed at my Trader Joe’s bag (containing my work clothes, while I commuted in ratty shorts and a polo shirt).

“Is that your lunch?”

I explained what I was doing and she thought it was “a good idea.”

In the window of the Donna’s on St. Paul Street, a large, mustached man in a pink Oxford shirt sat at the counter in the window, talking on his phone. His Bluetooth headset left his hands free to pick his nose as I passed.

At work, it’s on to report number two of the series involving the Filemaker-database analysis I’ve described earlier. I’m on to another year’s data, which means I’m doing everything I had to for the last report all over again. At least I seem to have a working system this time. The question is whether I can get it all done by Friday next. We shall see. And my boss offered me some post-employment work already, which is nice. Coincidentally, I’d just been on the Missoula County Public Schools web site, looking into the requirements for substitute teaching. Damn, but they make you jump through some hoops for $9.64 an hour. References? Background checks? Did any of those somnolent oldsters who occasionally took the helm of my classes when I was a kid really go through all of that? You’d think it was an application to guard Fort Knox or some other precious. . . oh, yes, never mind. That and some other commercial freelance work suddenly makes it look like September will be pretty busy, and a time of plentiful groceries. Funny how much more appealing it is to think of doing the exact same work I’m doing now, but 2,200 miles away, on my own schedule, with an afternoon nap if I’m so inclined. And maybe in the university library, where I could break for lunch with A. and see what the fraternities are shouting about through their bullhorns in the dining hall. I think I’m going to like this.

At home, I packed three more boxes and mercilessly weeded out some of the incredible volume of papers a person like me accumulates. Some houses that I visit, it’s like there isn’t a sheet of the stuff in the house. Around me, however, it piles up as effortlessly as dandruff. (Metaphor only – that’s not currently a problem of mine, though my lower back does ache a little from time to time.)

I puttered around online [FN 2]while I was waiting for a call/visit from a Craigslister interested in the bedroom furniture. She had sworn up and down that she would come either Tuesday or Wednesday night at around 8 p.m. “If you don’t hear from me Tuesday, I’ll definitely be there Wednesday to pick it up.” No call/visit on Tuesday, of course. At around 9 p.m. Tuesday night, another respondent to the ad called to ask if the set were still available. I told her the situation and said I’d let her know on Wednesday. Sure enough, no sign of respondent #1 (actually, #4 at this point) on Wednesday, so I called the second one back. She came right over (she lives around the corner) and seemed to retain her interest even after seeing the stuff, which is always good. But she can’t pick it up until Tuesday, when she is moving out of her current house and will have a U-Haul truck available to her. Fine. It’s not like anyone else is exactly beating down the door.

I topped off the evening with yet another review of the Missoula-area house-rental web sites. There is one that I’d be willing to move on, except that it doesn’t allow pets, just like every other appealing rental we’ve yet located in those parts. I can sympathize, I guess – it just takes one corner left to stink eternally by some unfixed tom cat to sour a landlord forever, I imagine, but this is getting frustrating. It’s getting to the point where we’ll either have to lie and work it out later, or just go ahead and drown Zuzu now and get it over with.

Does anyone have a sack I can use?


FN 1: One of the many domestic skills I picked up or at least perfected in boot camp. Also making hospital corners in an unfitted sheet. It struck me as counter-intuitive at the time, how much time we spent ironing and delinting and otherwise fussing with our clothes, not to mention how much time we spent with our hands down each others’ pants, although this last was as always not what you’re thinking: your shirt had to be tucked in a certain way, and those of us who had mastered this skill and were tired of doing pushups and flutter kicks on behalf of those who had not were only too glad to lend some assistance. How did these people survive later, out on the ships, their shirts improperly tucked?

FN 2: I’m working on my own portfolio web site, after discovering that the design firm I contacted in town would “only” charge me about $5,000, or $1-2,000 if I kept it simple. I’m actually going to use WordPress blogging software, which is what powers this site, although I’ll pick a different template. I think it will work pretty well, actually, especially since I won’t be in a business that generally gets a lot of “walk-up” clients through a web site. All I need is a repository for some clips where I can send people if they’re curious.


Due to jet lag, I didn’t get much sleep Sunday night and so decided to skip the gym Monday morning. Important to ease back into these things. Wouldn’t want to traumatize myself, pack it in altogether, no sir, wouldn’t want to do that.

It was manifestly not good to be back in Baltimore, which at this point I have to take as a good sign. In general, there’s all this work to do, and now only a month to do it. And in particular, how can anyone stand to live here? I’m speaking of the weather. As I walked to work on Monday, shouldering my way through the thick, malarial air, I couldn’t help but think that it was probably about 62 degrees in Flagstaff at that moment, with -15 percent humidity and the scent of pine and juniper in the air. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, it was already in the low nineties, humidity roughly equivalent to the bottom of the ocean, and I didn’t even want to think about what I was smelling. I’d heard on the radio that there was a chance of rain in the afternoon, so I carried my massive golf umbrella back to work, just in case. But even if I were to get caught in a rainstorm without it, would I get any wetter than I got on that walk to work? I faced the Baltimore summertime walker’s dilemma: walk slowly, so as not to get drenched in sweat, or walk quickly, so as to get out of the stinkpit and into the air conditioning as soon as possible? (Quickly, obviously.) By the time I’d gotten to my office, I felt like I’d been dripped in water. I spent a few minutes sitting in my chair, shivering in the air conditioning, before ducking into the bathroom to dry off a little with some paper towels.

Work itself was okay. I put in my official resignation letter – my last day is July 31st – and, as I looked ahead at the calendar, I saw that there is really a very short list of things I can work on, if I’m to follow my boss’s request that I only work on things I can finish before I leave. In a way, this takes the pressure off, and – workwise – it shouldn’t be a bad month at all. Which is good, because – getting-the-house-ready-and-packing-wise – the opposite is true. But if A. can work 17-hour days (on which more later, although not in this post), so can I. (Actually, that should probably read, “if A. can work 17-hour days, I can probably manage at least 11.”)

Another disgusting sweat-drenched walk home, this time with a weather eye out for a gang of marauding youths with baseball bats supposedly terrorizing the neighborhood around my office, according to a hot-pink flyer taped to a phone pole with a headline screaming “ALERT ALERT ALERT.” Zuzu was glad to see me, as always, because I know how to scoop wet cat food onto her plate. She seemed to be hungry: that morning I’d packed up two leftover slices of pizza for lunch but had forgotten to take them with me, leaving them in a ziploc on the counter all day. I picked up the bag to throw them away and noticed that they looked kind of. . . smooshed. Looking closer, I saw little puncture marks in the bag. I wonder how long Zuzu worked on it. All day, and just couldn’t get anywhere? Or had she just started when I walked in the door? “Ah, excellent, he left me a little appetizer to tide me over. . .”

After dinner, I watched the DVD that Upack sent. I was expecting it to be full of packing hints, but these were dispensed with in about two minutes, leaving the rest of the DVD to talk about how great the company is. I took heart, though, when the animated map in a segment about how extensive their network is showed a line traveling across the country from the east coast and stopping almost exactly in Missoula. Seems like a good omen. The DVD also informed me of the specialized moving supplies I could order from the company’s web site, and so I promptly ordered some: a bunch of tape, a couple of special dish-packing sets, some bubble wrap, and a set of those special straps movers use which supposedly “increase your lifting power by 60 percent” but, more importantly, allow you to lift things in a more ergonomically healthy manner.

I packed 5 boxes.

I have nothing much to say about Tuesday, except (1) I made it back to the gym and (2) I walked to work in shorts and a t-shirt, carrying my work clothes in a Trader Joe’s bag.

And I packed 3 boxes.

Notice: Site Probably Dark Through Sunday

I’m not going to bring the laptop to Arizona, not least because I’ll be staying in a tent part of the time, so it’s unlikely I’ll get a chance to update much here while I’m out there.

This might also limit the exhaustiveness of my report when I get back, since it’s hard to catch up on several days all at once. I can only promise a vignette or two or three, and those no earlier than Monday.


I took a longer run, and, for a little while, I finally got past the “needing to make an effort to keep going” feeling and into the “running for the sake of running” feeling. It’s been a while.

Of course, I won’t get any running in for almost a week, as I’ll be in Arizona and couldn’t seem to prioritize fitting my running shoes into my small captain’s bag. Maybe this will be a nice recuperative break that will enable me to be all the more devoted when I get back.

Or maybe Monday was the last time I’ll go for a run for another six months.

There’s only one way to find out.

One of the early-morning regulars at the gym drives a cab (I see it in the parking lot when I leave). Based entirely on stereotypes, I have decided that the driver is the intense-looking black man with the sharp, well-groomed haircut who always wears a matching set of a gold bracelet and chain. It’s not important what he drives, but that’s the guy who was sitting across from me in the leg-extension machine as I used the deltoid/fly machine. Which means he had a perfectly good view when I finished, stood up, sprayed down the machine with the provided bottle of cleanser, and wiped it all down with one of the provided little green towels. I had just walked around the row of machines and was adjusting the seat on the chest press to the proper height when I noticed the man preparing to use the deltoid/fly machine himself – by spraying it and wiping it down. Did he think I hadn’t done a good enough job? Or just that I was extra dirty? It’s possible that he actually hadn’t noticed my own cleaning of the machine, I guess, although I had done it only about six feet away from his face.

It’s possible that my technique didn’t look right. Whereas most people, after spraying, scrub at the surfaces of the machine like they’re going after mildew in a bathtub, I prefer to leave a light film of the cleanser showing. This is because, as far as I know, if it’s germs we’re supposed to be worried about, you don’t kill germs by just spraying and scrubbing. There’s this little thing called “kill time,” i.e., the “germ poison” needs to be left alone for a little while in order to have time to work. Of course, it never is left alone for very long, leading to my suspicion that the whole process is just a big charade that doesn’t achieve anything. Also, it’s always struck me as strange that the most devoted wipers often seem to use whatever rag happens to be hanging on the machine, meaning they’re cleaning using a rag that is limp and damp from repeated other “cleanings,” meaning that they’re probably just smearing ten different people’s sweat back and forth across the machine. (Because I’m better than everyone else in the world, I always take a fresh green rag from the bin by the front desk, carry it with me to clean each machine I use, and then dump it in the hamper on my way out.)

So maybe he saw the “light film” I’d left and thought it was sweat. (He wasn’t just wiping it off, though, remember – he resprayed, too.) Whatever. He’s lucky I clean the machines at all. I never used to, back when I was really just going through the motions on the weight machines and never trying particularly hard. It seemed stupid to me to clean a machine on which I hadn’t even broken a sweat.

But now that I’m fully engaged in a program of grotesque physical overdevelopment, it’s another story, of course.

I tried to refill A.’s Allegra prescription at the Safeway today, but of course I would have needed her insurance information to do this. I’ll just bring her the bottle on Tuesday and she can have this done in Flagstaff. Meanwhile, I’m probably lucky it was only Allegra I was after.

“My, um, wife, works in the, um, woods, and can’t get to a phone and I was wondering if I could get her a refill of this bottle of liquid morphine? My, I mean her, um, back is really killing her…”

There were no premade sandwiches so I waited in line at the Safeway deli sandwich counter. I know I seem to criticize everything, but there is something maddening about ordering a custom sandwich at this place. I guess it’s that the employees serving you are just meat-counter clerks, so they don’t have the mad sandwich-making skills that you’d find in a real deli, where they are making the sandwich as you’re calling out the ingredients. Instead, they go about the process so painstakingly and inefficiently that it’s like watching someone repair a clock. That’s why I just order one of the paninis, which are premade and sitting in a display case, although then I have to wait for them to grill it in the Cuban-style sandwich grill.

While I waited to place my order, two transvestites were talking in line ahead of me.

“Girl,” said one to the other. “I can’t believe this store don’t have no cosmetics aisle.”

It does, of course, but perhaps it just didn’t rise to the level of her standards. As a side note – and I don’t mean to malign these two – the Safeway sits close to a stretch of Calvert Street – through the semi-abandoned and/or crumbling rowhouses that are gradually giving way to the “Station North” neighborhood redevelopment – that seems to be the place to go if you would like to do business with a black, transvestite prostitute. This gradually dawned on me after many years of noticing “women” in tight clothes but with very broad shoulders hanging about on front stoops and corners there. Interestingly, they are often out during the morning rush hour, leading me to wonder exactly who their clients are. Business men on the their way to the office? But why wouldn’t these business men just go out looking for this kind of company in the evening? Unless – they have a wife and kids at home?

As Chuck says (in an entirely different context, I realize) it goes to show you never can tell.

During lunchtime, I drove downtown to one of the few remaining post offices in the city to mail out the free-flight vouchers for the late-August wedding/christening trip. Post offices take me right back to my childhood, when I used to accompany my father on such errands. My father, who has worked from home virtually my entire life, was my daytime caretaker during summer vacation and other school breaks and had an inordinate amount of business to transact at post offices and copy shops, and I always liked tagging along on these grownup-feeling missions. I was less of a fan of going grocery shopping, but then, the grocery store didn’t display posters of the FBI’s “most wanted” fugitives like the post office did. (Does the post office still do this? I haven’t noticed these lately, but, as we grow older, we do tend to forget to stop and smell the roses and otherwise enjoy the simple pleasures in life.) Nor was the grocery store typically plagued by Larouche followers sitting at card tables, their hand-lettered attempts at dramatic, eye-catching signage fluttering in the weak, hot wind off of the parking lot. Once my father and I were present for the rescue of an infant after its mother accidentally locked it and her keys in the car. I have a memory that a fireman decided there was no time to waste and simply broke a window, which seems sensible in retrospect (if it in fact really happened that way). Would you want to take the slightest risk of putting yourself in the position of saying, “yeah, my baby is brain damaged from heat stroke because I was thinking, ‘just one more minute and I should be able to snare the lock button with this coathanger.'”

But Monday’s trip to the post office was not so dramatic. In, 10 minutes in line, and out, clutching my return-receipt slip, hopeful that this whole free ticket thing might actually work out.

At work, for the last two workdays, I have been using Filemaker like an abacus. Which is to say, I needed the figures with which to fill in an Excel table with about 24 columns and about 50 rows, with each of these approximately 1,000 cells requiring that I perform a unique search action in my Filemaker database each time. Of course, if I knew more about Filemaker, I could just write a script that would automatically run the whole batch of actions and export it all to this same Excel spreadsheet.

Oh, well. I guess that’s why, in my job description, it says I’m a writer and editor, not a freaking Filemaker developer.

I’ll be glad to be done with this project.

In the evening, I gave away some plants and packed for Arizona.


So it is possible to sleep in sometimes after all.

There was some freelance work.

There was some take-home day-job work.

There was a phone call to United Airlines. One of A.’s childhood friends is marrying in August in the Philadelphia area, but not, unfortunately, until after we will have moved to Montana. Then there’s the christening of a new niece in the Chicago area, the day after that wedding. And I had some free tickets, from giving up my seat two days in a row on my flight home from Missoula in March. You can’t book on-line using this kind of voucher, though, so – rewind a decade – I had to make the arrangements on the phone, talking to a living human being. Although first, of course, you have to talk to the robot. United uses a male robot, the voice keyed to sound like a genial, eager-to-please twenty-something, like this is his first job out of robot college. There was no way I wanted to try to set up a three-city round-trip flight with the robot, though, so I just started saying “operator” as soon as he came on. I guess he’s not programmed to receive input for the first few sentences, but finally he paused in his spiel to say, “you’re requesting to speak to an agent, right?”


“I’ll transfer you to an agent, then. And I’ll pass along all of the information you’ve given me.”

Which was none, at that point, but fine, that’s nice of the robot. Why, it’s almost what a human would do.

The sound-quality of the connection changed, then, in the way that suggests a longer-distance connection, or at least that the signal is maybe having to be translated back and forth as it travels through some not entirely similar relay systems. A slight echo, a hint of static – and then the cheerful voice with a pronounced south-Asian accent. But despite the accent, the agent gave his name as “Michael Chapman,” and then said he understood I’d asked to speak to an agent.

“Yes, I need to set up a three-city – ” I began.

“Hello, this is Michael Chapman, I understand you requested to speak to an agent,” Michael Chapman repeated. Apparently there was something wrong with our connection. I tried again a few times, but it was clear that he couldn’t hear me, and so I hung up.

Once again with the robot:

“Thanks for calling United – ”


“- Airlines. If you’re calling to make a reservation – ”


” – I’ll help you shop for the lowest fare.”


“Or if you already have a reservation – ”


” – I can help you with that, too.”


“If you ever get stuck, just say ‘help,’ and I’ll explain your options.”


“Let’s get started.”


“You said ‘agent,’ correct?”


“No problem. . .”

And once again, improbably, the improbably named Michael Chapman picks up – and he still can’t hear me.

Third time turns out to be successful. This time I get a woman with a similarly non-Anglo accent but a similarly improbable Anglo name of Veronica Smith. Veronica can hear me, and – with the occasional misunderstanding, due not only to accent and connection quality but also the near-universal affliction of people in such jobs who assume that you’re as familiar as they are with the process they’re taking you through – we get through the arrangements. The reservation is made, the flights selected. Surprisingly, the whole trip turns out to be covered by my vouchers, even though an earlier research call I’d made on the subject gleaned that we would need to pay for the leg of the flight between Philly and Chicago.

But it was a strange feeling to finish the call and realize that the flight arrangements I’d made exist only in a “hold” status in United’s system. To finalize things, I must mail in my vouchers, postmarked within 24 hours of that call, and then I’ll receive confirmation. I’m so used to doing these things on line and immediately receiving a confirmation email spelling everything out. But with the vouchers, I’ll just have to hope Veronica got everything right, hope that the vouchers don’t get lost in the mail (I’m xeroxing them and sending them return receipt, of course), hope hope hope. And I suppose I could still hear back that Veronica was wrong about the vouchers covering everything, but flights between Philly and Chicago are pretty cheap.

What could go wrong?

I called my father to wish him a happy Father’s Day. He and my mom have been playing with a new iMac all weekend and hadn’t even thought about the date. Life in West Virginia sounds good: they had gone out to a fiddle concert on Saturday, at the college that borders their backyard. My brother and I are planning to go for a visit in about two weeks. Unfortunately, we’ll be too early for the annual four-week (!) folk-music festival/workshops the college hosts each summer. Maybe next year.

In the late afternoon, a spasm of productivity: I ripped down the stained tiles in the bedroom ceiling so that I can monitor for dampness over the next few weeks/rainstorms (I don’t want to replace the tiles if the roofers still haven’t managed to fix the leak); I installed a fire extinguisher on each floor (I hope that these, along with the AC-powered/battery backup smoke detector I had the electrician put in, will keep me from becoming a landlord whose tenants perish in some terrible fire); I mounted a handle on the inside of the trapdoor that covers the outside basement steps (this will make it easier to pull close, but, more importantly, gives one something to pull down on so that the inside locks – just padlock hasps – can be engaged; some sort of warping was making this difficult before); and I replaced the upstairs toilet seat.

It’s hard to believe that we did not own a cordless drill/screw-gun until just about a year ago. Time was when I would have had to complete these little projects with a screwdriver; amazing how fast I can zip through them with modern technology on my side. Of course, the modern technology leads me to be a little lazy: my first instinct is always to just try to drive the screw without drilling a pilot hole, with varying degrees of success depending on how hard the wood is. This worked about half the time yesterday, and finally I realized how much less frustrating it would be to just drill the dang pilot hole instead of trying to ham-fist my way through. Then there was the minor reminder to “measure twice, cut once,” when I thought I’d found the perfect spot for the kitchen fire extinguisher, only to discover that it was blocking the door.

I capped off the day with a quick run to Giant to lay in a pizza in case my brother gets back late from NYC on Monday night, and to likewise lay one in for my own return from Arizona on Sunday (a meat supreme pizza, to make sure the vegetarian won’t be tempted in my absence), along with a few other supplies, including a half-dozen or so cans of cat food. Then I actually cooked: fresh pasta, some sauteed peppers, steamed broccoli. It’s like I’m living like a human all of a sudden. Proceeded with Bangkok 8, in which the hero detective – distraught over the death of his partner – took a cocktail of drugs and danced to forget in a seedy nightclub, then had to meet with his boss over lunch in the brothel his boss owns as a sideline, then passed out and was put to bed in one of the rooms upstairs. Great stuff, so far – I may stop into Barnes and Noble and pick up the second book in the series, which I noted on the shelf when I got this one, for the trip, although I’ll also be bringing along some work. (Real quick: I pride myself on my leisure ethic and, in general, reject the concept of bringing work home or on vacation. But since I’m finishing out this job soon, and want to keep working for this company on a freelance basis, I want to finish out my projects as best I can. Plus, any hours I work this way will be counted as one-for-one comp time, meaning I’ll essentially be on the clock while doing it, meaning I’ll have to use less vacation time, meaning I might be able to work it out so I’m getting paid for the week after my last day at work. I wonder what it says about me that I’m vaguely embarrassed to be seen as one of these workaholic types who can’t leave work at the office? I guess I feel as if people like that are being taken advantage of, and I don’t want to be one of them. If I were actually paid time-and-a-half overtime, as I probably should be (the laws on “exempt” employees recently got a lot stiffer, but I’m not going to raise the issue at this late date, and maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll never work for anyone else again), that would be a different matter.)

Thank you and have a good one.


The capacity of the human heart for self-delusion is nearly limitless. Case in point: the Home Depot cashier had just finished ringing up my cart-load of purchases. When she told me the total, all I heard was “seventy four.” For a fleeting moment, I allowed myself to believe that that was all she’d said – that I might have just spent the better part of an hour filling my shopping cart, in Home Depot of all places, assembling the needed supplies for about a half dozen small home projects – but that the total might really have come to only seventy-four dollars.

I asked her to repeat the amount. Needless to say, I’d missed the initial digit. And it wasn’t “one.”

Part of the reason it had taken me the better part of an hour to fill my cart is the fact that Home Depot is not exactly an easy place to find things in. Sure, if you want a paint scraper, you know it’ll be in the paint section, but that only narrows it down to four or five aisles. And would a “box of rags” be in the paint section? Or are they integral to some other type of project and kept with its components instead? (Paint section, as it turns out.) And heaven help you if you are looking for something that’s in no clear category, like fire extinguishers. I asked three employees and got three different answers, two of them sending me to opposite corners of the store, so the walking alone took five minutes, and then, in each case, I had another four or so aisles to look through before I could be reasonably certain I was in the wrong spot. The second employee told me they’d be in the electrical section, where I noticed smoke detectors were on display. This made it seem especially reasonable that fire extinguishers might be there, too, so I spent an extra few minutes carefully combing the shelves, because I didn’t want to be led back to this same spot by the next employee I asked. I told the third employee my tale of woe and she not only turned out to know where the things were really kept but put her money where her mouth was by actually escorting me there. Turned out they were near the locks and safes, in a sort of “protect your home” classification. Next I wanted what turns out to be called a “splash block,” the thing that sits under your downspout to carry the water a little further away from your house. I thought these were always made out of concrete or some kind of faux stone, plus you use them in the garden, so – of course – they’d be in the garden section, right? No, the gutters section, on the far side of the store from the garden section. (And they aren’t stone, either, or at least Home Depot doesn’t carry that kind; the ones I bought were molded plastic and weigh about five ounces, and I expect them to remain on my property exactly as long as it takes someone to notice them and scoop them up.)

And another reason it took me so long to find everything is that, on top of how confusing the store is, it can be very difficult to locate an employee to ask in the first place. Even the ones you do see are generally walking quickly, avoiding eye contact as resolutely as a weeded waitress, obviously thinking “please don’t ask me anything please don’t ask me anything.” I always feel almost apologetic for a second when I manage to flag one down, before I remember that, if I don’t ask, I’m going to be wandering the aisles for the next half decade trying to figure out where some obscure little item is stocked. Why don’t they just install some sort of computerized directory, like the libraries have? I guess that’s easier said than done, but if they’re not going to train or otherwise inspire their staff to leap to people’s assistance when they are looking for something, not to mention hiring enough staff so customers can actually find someone without walking a quarter mile from the section they have a question about, maybe they should consider it. I’m sure that there are more than a few people who shop elsewhere because of this, especially the novice do-it-yourselfers that Home Depot’s ad copy seems aimed at. (“You can do it, we can help,” it says, next to a picture of a woman or at least a shiny-faced young couple with soft-looking hands.)

As I trudged back and forth through the store, I made numerous sightings of a pigeon that had gotten inside somehow and was swooping back and forth and perching in the rafters. Or maybe there were numerous pigeons. Either way, no one else seemed to notice.

Since I get going a little later on Saturday than during the rest of the week, I didn’t want Zuzu to have to wait for her breakfast until I was back from the gym and so fed her before I left. I did my legs and abs workout then read a New Yorker short story while huffing away on the gerbil stepper. The television never fails to disappoint, though. I only glanced at it for a few seconds here and there, and yet that was enough to read the following closed caption (approximated, from memory): “A new music video about Barak Obama is making a stir on the internet – and on the political scene. How will it affect the presidential election? But first, the nuclear standoff with Iran.” That “but first” sort of saves them, of course – it lets them claim to have their priorities straight. But of course the nuclear standoff with Iran didn’t come first in their headline tease, and the logic of their presentation seems to be that the story about “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama” will probably be of the most interest to their viewers, but that’s for dessert. (Never mind the obvious deficiencies of a media environment in which we are supposed to pretend that such a thing is worth thinking about at all.) First we have to eat our broccoli by watching some boring piece about the boring old nuclear standoff with boring old Iran. Maybe if Ahmedinijad more often appeared wearing either a two-piece or short shorts with something pithy spelled out in block letters across his buttocks, more Americans would pay attention. But I guess that if he were the type to do that, Iran probably wouldn’t be the problem that it is.

When I got home from the gym, I learned that Zuzu had convinced my brother to feed her again.

My brother was headed to New York City for the weekend, after his Saturday bike-shop shift was over, so he asked me to drive him to work so that he could just take a cab to the Greyhound station from there. After I dropped him off, I picked up a bagel at the Federal Hill version of Sam’s, then stopped for gas. (I’d used the car off and on over the previous day or so, and the gas light had been on the whole time, so I was starting to get a little nervous.) For the sake of the permanent record, let me just note that five bucks worth of gas appears to cost about ten dollars these days.

I returned home and did some work on a freelance project before eleven, when the contractor suggested by my management company finally stopped by to estimate replacing the tub surround. Now that I’ve had a chance to talk to the guy face to face, I feel a lot more charitable concerning his standing me up on Tuesday, when he was first supposed to stop by. I think there is a major language barrier that may have led to signals getting crossed, and then he would have had to call me up and try to understand me and maybe admit that he didn’t understand me, and so on. But in person he seems capable and eager for the work. We’ll see what his estimate is, which I should be getting in a day or so. (He had to research the cost of the insert he’d be putting in.)

I was also expecting someone interested in some furniture I’m selling on Craigslist. She was supposed to come at two. Around three I gave up waiting and headed out to Home Depot. Is it really more mortifying, when you’ve decided not to keep an appointment like this, to imagine calling someone and telling him “never mind” than it is to imagine him just waiting for you and cursing your lack of consideration and communicativeness? Sometimes I think I’ll never understand you humans.

A. called and talked me through setting up a Paypal account using her U-Montana departmental credit card so that I could relay her payment for the replacement video cameras we’d won in eBay auctions. I found myself thinking about this strange historical moment, in which one person sitting in an SUV in a wilderness forest area in Arizona can be in contact with someone in Baltimore, sitting on his couch, talking via a cell phone headset, setting up the purchases and shipping of items from god knows where to said wilderness area. (Bet those eBay sellers don’t get too many shipping addresses mentioning a “ranger station.”)

Which is all well and good, but where’s my jet pack?


As I ran up the long, gradual incline of Chestnut Hill Avenue, from the intersection of The Alameda and Loch Raven, I stumbled into the middle of a squirrel fight. At first I thought that the one small furry animal being chased down the utility pole was a rat, but it just turned out to have a very scrawny tail. The victorious squirrel remained stationary on the pole, at about the height of my head, staring me down. He was evidently so amped up from the confrontation in which he had just prevailed that he didn’t consider me a threat at all. He just kept staring. The sidewalk is narrow there, hemmed in by tall shrubs in someone’s side yard, and I had it drummed into me in childhood to beware of small animals that aren’t afraid of you. So I stepped out into the road and made a wide circle around the squirrel on his utility pole. When I looked back a few paces later, he was still staring at me.

At work we are hiring, and the ad makes the job sound more clerical than it really is. Or, rather, we don’t want a career secretary, we want a young recent graduate who doesn’t mind doing some secretarial stuff along with a lot of self-directed problem solving that secretaries aren’t as often called upon to handle. One of the resumes lists, as pretty much the foremost accomplishment of the person who submitted it, “25 years of perfect attendance.” It’s not my hiring decision, but – aside from the undesirability of hiring a 25-year veteran for an entry-level position – god, how depressing to think that this person never had anything better to do for 25 years than come to work. Not the kind of coworker I would want, but then, I’m more in favor of just getting things done, as opposed to just putting in time.

After work, I skipped Dizzy’s for a barbecue at Mary’s and Elliot’s house. Nice to unwind and eat a burger in a calm, quiet dining room for a change, plus everyone seemed so interesting: an auditor (who I could tell didn’t think auditing would be very interesting to anyone else, but I’m actually kind of fascinated by the process of figuring out – really quantifying – the health and truthfulness of massive organizations and companies); a professor who once taught a class entitled “Why Arnold Matters” (Ahnold, that is) and can do a pitch-perfect imitation of the Governator’s speaking style; and so on. Talk included reminiscences from a volunteer-fire-department-sponsored demolition derby several of the guests had recently attended, at which judges and bystanders were nearly killed when one of the contestant cars came hurtling out of the competition area and landed upside down outside of the jersey barriers. (And as an etymological point of interest, the person from New Jersey reports that she had never heard the term “jersey barrier” until she left the state.)

We enjoyed burgers, hot dogs and “sausage burgers” (I never did receive a very good explanation of what that meant – I mean, I guess I know what it means, but, why does it mean what it means, where did these things come from, whose idea was it?) from the grill. There was a lot of hyping up of the sausage burgers, and I kept meaning to go back for one, but, unfortunately, I never got around to it.

Back home, where I was waiting for a possible call from A. about some eBay auctions I’d helped her win (the video cameras for Bird Camp), I finally started Bangkok 8 and it looks like it will be just the ticket. A U.S. Marine murdered with snakes in the first pages, a vengeful yet thoughtful Thai police detective, throwaway lines like – in the course of just describing a streetscape that happens to include the U.S. Embassy – “In the 21st century the American ambassador works in a medieval castle. What is the karma of America?”

That’s as good a place as any to stop.

Bird-related: birds disappearing

“Twenty common birds — including the northern bobwhite, the field sparrow and the boreal chickadee — have lost more than half their populations in the past 40 years, according to the society’s research… “Today you can’t find a bobwhite in Pennsylvania, and hearing a whippoorwill is a red letter day,” he said at an Audubon news conference Thursday morning…The researchers say many factors play into the decline in bird numbers, including intensification of agriculture, other loss of habitat, pesticides, invasive species, and global warming.”