Life in suspended animation

The Thinker by Rodin

There’s siding on our house now. The plumbing is mostly in place, but no water is running and nothing like a sink is connected to the plumbing yet. A skeletal electrical system runs through the house, but also is not connected to any actual electricity. The floor of the garage is now concrete instead of sand. A gas fireplace is in its spot in our future living room. The gas line now comes up to the house but that’s as far as it goes. Two shower inserts are also in place. The rooms in the upstairs are sealed off from the attic. Most of the ducting is in place. But that’s pretty much all that the developers have done to our house over the last three months. No drywall is up. No insulation installed. Sawdust and debris litter the floors. Construction crews can’t be bothered to sweep or pick up stuff. Old soda bottles sit in the corners of our rooms to be.

It helps to be patient while we cool our heels eight miles away in a tiny and uncomfortable apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The house was supposed to be done in about two weeks. The new estimated completion date is September 15. While we wait in an apartment with one window air conditioner and a few fans trying to keep us cool, our developers are busy working mostly on other houses. It’s pretty clear that we are not that important to them. Weeks go by sometimes without anything happening to our house. Sometimes there is a day or two burst of activity and then people and trucks disappear until some ambiguous future time when more return.

I’m not sure how this house construction business is supposed to go, but I doubt it’s supposed to go like this. The developer has his excuses, of course. It was an exceptionally cold and snowy winter and yet they were able to pour a foundation in February. In March when we visited a frame was up, along with a roof. By the time we arrived three months ago, Tyvek was covering the outside and the windows were in. Then weeks went by and absolutely nothing happened. They can’t say it was because there was still snow on the ground.

The real reason for these delays seems to be twofold. The developer has another project twenty miles south of us. There they can concentrate forces and work on many units at once. Whereas we are a single unit in a development that is already three quarters complete and with only forty houses altogether. So it’s more efficient and profitable to do those houses and keep us in suspended animation. In addition, their subcontractors are busy doing work elsewhere. I guess the housing sector is doing quite well. My guess is that they use low bidder contractors to eke out more profit on their projects, and they do the stuff that pays better first, so what slips must be our schedule.

Our new neighbors already know us by name. We attend their clubs, dinners and wine tasting events. Apparently our experience is common in this development, as most of their delivery schedules slipped too. So we are stuck in a tiny apartment in Easthampton with 80% of our stuff in storage. All we can do is cool our heels because getting angry doesn’t change the dynamics.

I guess this is the price you pay when a having a house built. The upside is that you can have the house built your way. The kitchen will be just the way my wife wants it because she designed it. The walls will have the uniform color of the walls in our last house: peach. And everything will be new and unlikely to need repair or replacement for many years. We just got to hang in there about two more months.

Meanwhile, there is all this free time. Much of it is spent sliding past each other in the hallway. In our tiny kitchen, it’s best for only one person to be standing at a time. Sound from the television can’t help but leak into my little study, because it is only a few feet away. So I keep the headphones on and hope to drown out the drone of my wife’s eclectic taste in TV shows. She watches stuff I would never watch in a million years, like pretty much anything on truTV, an absolute nadir of television “entertainment”.

Outside the kitchen window, the next-door neighbors offer something that is best considered entertainment. The guy works on his car endlessly, and has been tinkering with loud bass speakers in them since we got here. He does stupid and dangerous stuff. The other day I observed him trying to prime a small motorcyle engine by pouring gasoline into its carburetor then turning on the ignition switch. Some of the gasoline spilled onto the concrete and caught fire. Mental note: call the Easthampton Fire Department next time I observe this behavior. They shuffle off to work early. Around four a.m. they are outside our window conversing, car engines revving loudly. Once around two a.m. the husband and wife were on their back porch arguing loudly, presumably so they aren’t arguing in front of their kid. The neighbor above us got sick of it before us, opened his window and yelled at them to shut the fuck up.

At least I have time to thoroughly examine Easthampton. At one time I wanted to live here. Now that I am here: well, not so much. Florence (when we actually take up residence) will be a much better choice for us. In general roads are bad in western Massachusetts, but in Easthampton they are bad even by the standards of this part of the state. Only a major road will get an occasional resurfacing. Some of these other thoroughfares like Parsons Street and Ferry Street are full of potholes that have been filled in numerous times, making driving down the street teeth rattling. There are also lots of potholes the city can’t be bothered to fill in, and blocks where traffic cones block the axle-crushing ones. Months later they are still not filled in. I guess the residents like to keep property taxes down. In part to handle all the bumpy roads, I had my struts replaced.

Still, there is Mount Tom nearby. It’s not too hard to ascend the mountain in part because it’s not too high. The views of the Pioneer Valley up there are worth the climb. I’ve done it many times on my bike, with the best part the brisk ride downhill. There is plenty of time for biking in general, mostly to and from Florence where our house is. My excuse for biking there is to get the mail, but it’s also good exercise and gives me an opportunity to verify that little is being done on our house.

And there is my consulting, which amounts to about twenty hours a week. It ebbs and flows but keeps me connected to my profession. I take plenty of walks around the nearby Lower Mill Pond and amble through Easthampton’s modest downtown. Easthampton is a faint shadow of the showier and more successful nearby city of Northampton. The curious thing is that despite all the ruin porn, it’s definitely on the upswing. Businesses are moving back into some of it, principally to the old buildings along Pleasant Street. Others of these old brick buildings are scheduled for redevelopment. What you can’t find here in Easthampton is a really good restaurant, or a salad bar except in the Big E, its sole supermarket (and it’s a tiny but nice one). Except for downtown, most of the sidewalks and curbs are crumbling or have crumbled. If real prosperity is to happen here again, they might start by fixing these, but no one seems to want to pay for it.

Surely though we will move into our house one of these days and bid adieu to Easthampton. We have learned it’s best not to get our expectations up. So I expect a lot more bumping into my wife in this tiny little apartment in the months ahead.

It’s better outside

The Thinker by Rodin

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

Scrooge is alive: Wal-Mart is evil

The Thinker by Rodin

Can a company be evil? I think so. Wal-Mart is an evil company.

I have decided I will have nothing to do with Wal-Mart. Granted I was not exactly one of their major customers. I bought some paint there once, only because it got a Consumer Reports recommendation. And I purchased a set of prescription glasses there a few years back. I might have bought a couple other things over the years but that’s about it. That’s all it’s going to be unless Wal-Mart reforms its ways. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. See, first Wal-Mart has to get a conscience. It has none. Tolkien’s evil Lord Sauron looks good in comparison.

Admittedly I find its stores to be incredibly easy to hate. I hate the phony Wal-Mart greeter at the door. I hate the narrow aisles with products stuffed to the ceilings. I hate not being able to find anything quickly in the store. I hate the hugeness of the place. I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

I don’t hate its employees either because I was like them once. For about two years in my early 20s I worked as a wage slave for the now defunct Montgomery Ward corporation. It had a lot of the same attributes of Wal-Mart, but it just wasn’t as successful. What can I say: the economy was bad in 1979, even worse than it was today. I was a newly minted college graduate with a liberal arts degree and no place to use it. I worked at Wards to survive. I survived most of the time at or a little above the minimum wage (then in the $3-$4 an hour range). I did earn a commission of sorts for every lawn and garden sale I made, but all of it was against a draw. Lots of times I couldn’t earn my draw (i.e. earn the minimum wage based on my sales). (This wasn’t from lack of effort, just lack of customers.) I still got the minimum wage in these cases, but they were forever threatening to fire me and hire someone else if I couldn’t “earn” my draw.

Surviving was tough. I was fortunate to be young and in good health. Wards did offer some sort of health insurance plan but I couldn’t begin to afford it. Imagine trying to live on $4 an hour. If you can find a place to flop and put food in your mouth you are doing okay at those wages, even in 1979. I couldn’t afford a car — the one I brought from Florida gave out and I had no money to fix it. Purchase health insurance on my salary? The idea was laughable. The same is true with current Wal-Mart workers, which, like Wards, does actually offer something they call “health insurance”. Those of us who have real health insurance wouldn’t recognize it. The Wal-Mart basic health insurance plan costs $10 a week but is limited to paying out no more than $1000 a year in benefits! In my family we spend three or four times that a year on prescription drugs alone! Wal-Mart health insurance is, in short, mostly a waste of money, which is probably why so few Wal-Mart employees bother to get it in the first place.

McDonalds (another evil corporation) calls its jobs “opportunities”. I doubt Wal-Mart workers really believe their dead end jobs are opportunities. Here in Northern Virginia the local Wal-Mart seems to hire a lot of people who must have just recently gotten their green cards. Most don’t appear to be American citizens. I see lots of people who appear to be part time workers of Indian or Pakistani descent. When I was working for Wards I could afford (barely) to share a cheap apartment with another guy. I doubt they can manage even this. I imagine their Wal-Mart job is probably a second, third or fourth job and whatever miserly income they make helps support an extended family living in densities greater than their local housing officials would approve.

Scrooge lives folks, but he is now incorporated and he runs Wal-Mart. This Scrooge though squeezes everyone: suppliers and employees alike. He is ruthless in increasing profits and driving the competition out of business. If that means doubling imports from China and putting Americans out of work, it’s not a problem. This Scrooge is not immoral; he is amoral. He simply doesn’t care if his actions put Americans out of work, or results in depressed wages across the country. He doesn’t care if his store is tended to by legions of Bob Crachits. Scrooge begrudged giving Crachit Christmas Day off, but at least he did it out of some feeling of shame. Wal-Mart employees, as has been amply documented in the media, often are forced to book unpaid overtime. Its cleaning contractors hire illegal aliens at rates below the minimum wage that at least in some cases never get a day off. Scrooge grins and looks the other ways. The stockholders are pleased, as long as it doesn’t go public. Oops.

People like me with consciences need to know which companies treat their employees fairly and provide them with decent benefits. We need to know so we can patronize these companies. I wish there were more people like me. But Republicanism apparently has turned us into an amoral nation. We simply don’t give a damn about Wal-Mart workers and all the companies like Wal-Mart. All we care about is low prices and reckless consumerism. We don’t care if these people get sick. We can’t even see the connection when they show up at emergency rooms and their costs are passed on to us in the form of higher premiums. Skeptical? Believe it! Health insurance costs don’t go up twenty to thirty percent a year for years on end solely because new miracle drugs come on the market. They go up also because Wal-Mart workers and workers like them can’t get preventive medicine and instead get “free” but transitory treatment at our public emergency rooms at your expense.

I won’t patronize companies like Wal-Mart anymore. We need to grade corporations on how well they treat their employees and their business partners. They need score cards that are released with their quarterly balance sheets. We need to know who these corporate Scrooges are. We need to change our laws to ensure the lowest paid workers in this country are still paid decently and can actually survive on their wages. Until then those of us with consciences must just say no and refuse to patronize these places. Wal-Mart is the easy target. But if we can get Wal-Mart to cave in, the rest might too. Then perhaps there will be fewer stories in the paper like this one.

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An update on “B”

The Thinker by Rodin

I guess people do read my blog, and not just people I know personally. Over the weekend I got an email from a lady who implored me to take in the girl “B” I referred to in this entry, and to get her away from the likely sexual abuse that was occurring in her home. She knows of wherefore she speaks, she informs me. From this I assume she was a victim of incest.

I don’t know whether her father has sexually abused the 14-year-old girl in question “B”. Her father is a drunk in denial, at least from the perspective of “C”, her mother. Anything is possible I suppose because B is a very attractive girl for her age. We know through her mother than B has been receiving sexually suggestive email from a teacher at her school. This particular teacher has apparently been put on administrative leave pending an investigation. And through our daughter we have learned that B claims to have been raped. B is somewhat fuzzy about who the person was, and it might well be a product of her imagination. It sounds like he was an older boy among her circle of friends.

But it gets stranger. Because as you may recall from this other entry, B has another friend, let’s call her M, that lives down the street and is just as messed up as she is, but in a different way. M tried to kill herself by ingesting a whole bottle of Tylenol. Now we get reports, again through our daughter, that M and B have engaged in promiscuous oral sex with other boys. Reputedly M has done it twice, and B has done it once.

All while both girls claim to be bisexual. In fact B is having a relationship with a girl about her age, let’s call her N, that is sexual. Whether B is a lesbian, a bisexual or a heterosexual using a relationship with a girl her own age as some way of expressing her feelings is unknown. My reports are all second hand.

So what has B been up to since she was caught cutting herself? She seems to be in the psychiatric hospital on an outpatient basis and she attends a special school for such emotionally disturbed youth. The academic demands must not be too hard. B sees it as third grade stuff. Have I mentioned that B is exceptionally bright and was in the Gifted and Talented program prior to all this starting?

B remains a presence in our life, but my daughter is finding she has to draw boundaries because between B and N she lives in a world increasingly inhabited by the seriously disturbed. The good news is that B often comes with my daughter to church (we attend a Unitarian church) where my daughter often sings in the choir. B then goes with Rosie to the religious education program. For those of you who don’t know much about Unitarian Universalism, it’s a very accepting religion full of people who don’t quite fit in conventional society. B feels a natural affinity for the place, perhaps because it seems wholesome while at the same time it is full of people from a different walk of life. I am glad to bring B to services as often as she wants to go, with or without my daughter. Last Sunday she came with us, and the cuttings she gave herself were there for all to see. She helped with the Mosaic project that was the theme of the particular service. She wanted to play with Rosie after the service, but apparently it was a bit more than Rosie could manage that particular weekend.

I don’t know if B was sexually abused by her father. I am sure I can rule her mother C out. I should also explain that C is a Wiccan, and a prominent member of a local coven, and has let B learn more about Wicca when she expressed an interest. My correspondent may be correct though that the behavior B has exhibited is an expression of one or more incidents of incest. It’s impossible to know, but certainly something like that would royally screw up any child.

B is being closely monitored by county social services, and probably a family judge. B sleeps at home every night now, gets lots and lots of therapy and continues to take lots of antidepressants. We are certainly willing to take her in for a while if it is needed. But we cannot do so unilaterally for the obvious reasons: we are not her parents and we have no permission to do so. And we would have to be mindful of how her 24/7 presence in our house would affect our daughter Rosie.

But it’s not like we haven’t been down this way before. In some future entry I will have to relate our experience as foster parents some 15 years ago, with a situation that had many parallels to this present situation.

Meanwhile we try to be as warm and accepting as we can. We offer our house as a refuge while she is here. We jokingly refer to her as “our other daughter” (since she spends so much of her time at our house, over the years) or “our emergency auxiliary daughter”. I think B feels that we care about her.

It will be interesting to see what happens to her over the years. B is so pretty and so incredibly bright and so full of spirit. She has the potential to soar very high indeed. The odds though are against her. But perhaps if we believe in her, and if all those of you out there in blog-land believe in her too, she will rise like that phoenix from the ashes. If anyone could I am sure she could.

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A Neighbor in Hell

The Thinker by Rodin

Does life have you down? Do you feel overwhelmed by circumstance and wish you could start over? I often feel that way, not because I really don’t like my life that much nor not love my family. But sometimes even when I think my own personal problems are overwhelming, I can take some comfort in knowing that for other people things can, and indeed often are, much worse. This is a perverse sort of comfort, but it does help me realize that in the grand scheme of things my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Latest case in point has to do with a 14-year-old friend of my daughter who must, of course, remain nameless. Our daughter (thankfully) has been confiding in us that this girl, who I shall call “B”, has been cutting herself. These are not the sort of cuts from someone trying to take her life. She’s not bleeding from an open wound in the bathtub. But she is doing this and Rosie caught her at it at school, where B was using tissues to catch the blood. Thankfully Rosie is not stupid and immediately brought it to the teacher’s attention. The teacher immediately sent B to see a student counselor. Things escalated from there. B is now in the children’s psychiatric wing of a local hospital and will likely be in there for some time.

Because, you see, B’s family is dysfunctional. Her mother C is trying to hold the family together but it seems to be a lost cause. Because C is married to D who lost his job some months back and who also a world-class alcoholic in complete denial. C and D spent lots of time having arguments. D doesn’t think he has a problem even though he is staggeringly drunk most of the time. C is embarrassed to be seen with him. Naturally all the yelling, not to mention having a drunk father 24/7 is freaking B out. Fortunately her younger brother E seems to be largely immune from all this.

C has been trying to keep the family together on the belief that it is best for the children. But it is becoming apparent that some marriages can be so toxic that it is not best for the kids. B’s latest cutting tendency is no doubt a response to the rage and pain that she feels in her life but can’t control. B is in many ways an exceptionally bright and pleasant girl.

C needs to escape from all this once in a while … who can blame her? So she took off for a retreat with some friends. B immediately stopped taking her medications and D was too drunk to notice or to care. C gets called home prematurely from her retreat when the school calls. B is still in the hospital. C comes to visit, but B spurns C. B probably blames C for her whole family situation, not realizing that it is C who is doing her best in impossible situations.

All this, of course, while the family income is cut in half. Painful financial decisions will have to be made, like downsizing their life and perhaps selling their house. But the most painful of all, but perhaps most necessary of all, is for C to separate and divorce D. D may well end up on the street, homeless. He doesn’t seem to have a true friend in the world. Maybe D will hit rock bottom and go into recovery. It doesn’t look likely though.

Man, I want to pour a stiff one from just hearing about this! I can’t imagine living this scenario 24/7! My heart really though goes out to all of them. C is doing her best under impossible conditions. B is a 14-year-old kid who shouldn’t have had all this nasty stuff thrown at her at such a young age. And as much as I don’t like D being a drunk and wish he’d sober up, alcoholism is a disease, so I have sympathy for the guy and an addiction that is clouding his brain so much that rational thought is pretty much impossible.

We’ll see how this soap opera plays out. The good part is that C has now fully confided in my wife and my wife, bless her, wants to help out where she can. We might even host B in our house for a while. B might get better being in a normal family setting for a while.

As awful as this family’s situation is, there are other stories I know of personally that would make this one look like nothing. This is just the one I know about at the moment.

My life: I think I’ll keep it!

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