Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Darn that Deifacted Nethacite

My party of heroes enters the inner sanctum of the grim and ominous Draklor Laboratory, where the evil Dr. Cid awaits us, laughing maniacally in a glowing red coat. My heroes make short work of Cid with some fancy sword-and-sorcery. But despite his defeat, Cid still has the energy to make a convoluted – if not incomprehensible – speech and a grand departure in a flying chariot.

I sit holding the controller, baffled. For the first time in four months, I’ve turned on my PlayStation2, hoping to pick up the thread of the game “Final Fantasy XII.” It’s your typical role-playing weirdo fantasy thing with neat graphics and an imaginative if confusing story line.

Now I’ve defeated a Big Boss, and I have no idea what to do next. I didn’t understand one word of his speech. Before the battle, some guy with big sideburns popped out of nowhere and carried on a baffling dialogue with the villain.

“Cid!” he shouted. “You know deifacted nethacite brought down the Leviathan!”

Unfortunately, after a four-month hiatus from the game, I have no idea what the Leviathan is, or nethacite, or how it was deifacted – if I ever had. Now Cid was gone.

“Now what do I do?” I wondered aloud.

The little 3-year-old curled up next to me came to my rescue. “Go after the guy in the red coat, Mommy!” he commanded.

I looked down at Benny. “Really?”

“He wants you to follow him,” Benny said confidently.

Um, OK. Apparently my young son managed to pull a relevant thread out of that tangled speech, so off we went to the holy city of Guggenheim or Googleville or whatever.

Yes, I play “Final Fantasy” with my kid. Video games are supposed to be a troublesome issue in children’s lives, an addictive, time-wasting, antisocial pastime that leads to thumb sprains, learning disabilities and bad skin. And here I actually promote this cerebral drug.

Worse than that, FFXII has become a little routine, a 15-minute mother-son bonding session after dinner. It’s a fairly innocuous-looking game, mostly picturing Our Hero running around various scenic landscapes, contending with various monsters that emerge from trees, lakes, stone ruins, glaciers or sand dunes. (This game’s world, called Ivalice, has a very diverse climate.)

Benny likes the running part, although he gets a little restless when we have to shop. “Can we chase monsters now?” he asks.

“Our friends need new clothes – maybe even a new staff,” I said. “Poor Penelo will never stop falling down if we don’t get her some new armor.”

So Penelo got some neat Diamond Armor and Ashe received an Embroidered Tippet -- increased her skill level and was still cute enough to show her friends – and it was time to hit the road again.

We found ourselves in a some haunted castle and all these ghouls kept coming out of the floor. Not just ghouls, really, but ghosts, skeleton soldiers and some creepy, glowing, floating balls. But the ghouls were especially prominent, slithering out of the stone floors.

“Why do those guys come out of the floors?” Benny asked me.

“That’s what happens when nobody mops,” I answered, defeating a ghoul with a flick of the thumb and a lovely fire spell.

Benny stared wide-eyed at our own wooden floor, obviously expecting a skeleton to rise up, because clearly that floor hadn’t seen a Swiffer in some time.

“Mommy?” he asked. “Will the good guys always beat the bad guys?”

“Oh yes,” I said confidently. “No monster can beat Mommy.”

“Because you have the best magic?’

“Nope,” I answered, and pulled a computer printout from behind a sofa cushion,. “I have the best walkthrough.”

Peewee Basketball

Gosh, those basketball recruiters start young these days.

For the fourth day in a row, my gmail inbox contains a note from a fellow parent at Benny’s Dinosaur School. She’s trying to organize a PeeWee basketball team for Saturday mornings.

For the mere sum of $140 ($90 for the class and $50 for a year’s membership), Benny can get bounced on the head by a basketball multiple times in a noisy gym. Which he might enjoy – but for heaven’s sake, he spends 40 hours a week with these kids already. Now he can go to a weekly class, along with the class-wide birthday parties we’re invited to about once a month. I swear, next these Dinosaur School parents will want us all to live in a commune so Benny and his 15 classmates can spend every waking hour together.

The New York Times published an op-ed piece about year ago which discusses how much families turn inward and have little time for outside friends, extended relatives, neighbors, fellow church members and so on. Titled Too Close for Comfort, the article cited a study from the American Sociological Review that found that, from 1985 to 2004, Americans reported a marked decline in the number of people with whom they discussed meaningful matters.

Generally, I think that’s true, perhaps because many mothers are working outside the home, and so parents’ schedules don’t allow for lunches with friends, long phone calls with relatives and little chats over the hedge with the neighbor. I’ve discovered this myself, with this temporary full-time gig at the Business Times. Since working full-time, I have to call my sister during the walk between Benny’s school and the train stop, call my friends on my lunch hour and talk with relatives on the weekends. I meet some girlfriends for dinner and drinks once a month, and we get together with friends as a family every few weeks. Right now, that’s all I’m up for.

But I’d also stipulate that families are getting lots of interaction with others, but it’s all school-based. Children’s school takes up an enormous amount of discretionary time. It’s not just the homework and activities, it’s all the involvement: the volunteering, the fundraising, the driving to and fro. So other sources of social involvement – the church, the neighborhood, the extended family gets squeezed out because all this school stuff seems so nonnegotiable.

I’m practically shivering at the prospect of Benny starting kindergarten in a few years, because I’m under no illusions that I can drop the kid off for half the day, bring him home and go about my business with a light heart. Whatever school he’s in, there’s going to be expected parental involvement and I’ll find myself pounding pies with a mallet at 2 a.m. so they look homemade for a school event, like the poor mother in this book.

Okay, so I’m a grinchy hermit and indifferent to my child’s education and social development and deserve to die alone in a hidden cave. Well, fine, then. And in the years before Benny hits kindergarten, I hope I can develop the maturity to fulfill my schoolmom duties with a happy smile.

But why rush it? Our experience with structured child activities has been discouraging anyway – although God knows Ron has tried. He took Benny to a baby massage class when he was six weeks old. The teacher told Ron he didn’t have the right hormones and to bring me to the next class. Ron never went back. He also took Benny to some sort of Teeny Tots Soccer Team last spring, but Benny just ignored the ball.

Perhaps our little guy is missing out. But Benny spent last Saturday morning riding his tricycle with his daddy in Golden Gate Park, and I’d guess that he’d prefer that to any peewee basketball.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Busy Busy Busy

"I'm busy busy busy and I've got a lot to do,
and I haven't got a minute to explain it all to you …"

Those are the first two lines of a great children's song performed by
Kevin Kline and it describes our lives perfectly for the last two

"… For on SundayMondayTuesday I have people I must see,
and on WednesdayThursdayFriday I'm as busy as can be …"

Busyness, of course, has its own momentum. It's the lack of advance planning that kills me. It's a vicious cycle. Let's take Friday night's birthday party, for example, for Benny's little friend Lily.

Ron and I wanted to bring Lily a songbook and CD called "Philadelphia Chickens" (which contains the "Busy Busy Busy" song, actually). If we'd thought ahead, we would have picked up a copy while touring the Retail Heaven district in South San Francisco last weekend. Piece of cake.

But, of course, we don't think that far ahead. So Ron and I have been dashing out on our lunch hours this week to Financial District bookstores to find something suitable. Pickings were slim. Ron finally went over to the giant Borders on Union Square, where eight copies of the book were stacked near the back. I told Ron he should have stocked up. Benny has 15 classmates and they're all gonna have parties. I can feel it.

"… With the most important meetings and the most important calls,
we have to do so many things and post them on the walls …"

The list just grows. I still don't have a California driver's license. I still don't know my phone number by heart. Benny's preschool needed a form filled out by a pediatrician, which required finding a pediatrician, making an appointment, finding the office, etc. Now I've finally got the damn form, but I keep forgetting to bring it to the

And I just realized we've never washed Benny's nap stuff at preschool. Not once. In Benny's other schools, the staff just stuffed the bulging pillowcase under his cubby. But this school obviously expects parents to be proactive about blankies and sheets, which in our case means they never get washed. God knows what they look like. I'm afraid to find out.

One sad result of all this busyness is that I have limited time with Benny. I take him to school every morning, which is actually nice, because he's a sunny little guy in the morning. Ron picks him up in the afternoon and plays with him while I get dinner going and then the whole bath-story-bed landing cycle begins.

"…And we have to have our lunches,
though we don't have time to chew
and we have order many things in gray and navy blue …"

So I decided to slow things down a little. On Tuesday morning I stuck around the preschool a little bit
instead of dashing off to catch the train. Benny's been a little resistant about going to school lately, not fighting it, but unenthusiastic. I spent a little time watching the kids and chatting with a teacher. She's concerned about two bigger boys in the school, that they're not listening to the teachers, not gentle with the younger kids. Should she talk to the parents? "For Christ's sake yes," I said, trying not to roll my eyes. Certainly that's a better solution than telling the mother of one of the smallest boys in the class.

At 2:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, I picked up my backpack, said goodbye to my coworkers, and lit out of work early. As I walked up to the Dinosaur Preschool 30 minutes later, a 66 bus creaked to a stop nearby, and a familiar little face popped through the curtains to see the bus.

Well. The look on Benny's face when he saw me, two hours before the regular pickup, was indescribable. He wasn't in a hurry to leave, though – the children were singing songs while a teacher played the piano, so he zipped back down the stairs to join the fun.

This gave me a chance to corner the preschool's director, in the tiny kitchen. I gave one small hint about "bigger children" and the director immediately pinpointed the two boys and talked about how she would address that. Then I headed down the stairs, where Benny and some other children were performing a little Halloween play. (Benny was the Happy Pumpkin.)

As we walked back to the bus stop, I asked Benny what was his favorite part of the day.

"When you came to my school!" Benny shouted.

I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad about that. But at least I'd stepped off that busyness treadmill and spent some time concentrating on Benny.

"… Yes, we think there is a reason
to be running neck-and-neck
and it must be quite important —
but if not, well, what the heck."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Military History Seminar: Here Come the Cannons

Makers of Modern Strategy
From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age
Edited by Peter Paret

These days I'm endangering my spine by carrying around "Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age," edited by Peter Paret. It's a weighty collection of essays by about 30 historians and
experts. I knew I was in for it when I opened to the introduction, which began: "Carl von Clausewitz defined strategy as …"

Crap, I thought. I've already done this. I've read Clause's "On War." Don't make me go back!

But the book is actually pretty valuable. Step by step, essay by essay, "Makers" leads us from medieval Europe to the Cold War. I'd just finished two Civil War books (the novel "The Killer Angels" and the nonfiction "Battle Cry of Freedom") and I was looking for someone to explain to me why these Civil War generals did so many crazy
things. If that meant going back to Machiavelli rubbing his greedy little hands together in 16th-century Italy, so be it.

In Mach's time, warfare moved away from knights and castles to guns and armies. The development of gunpowder rendered the knight's armor useless. The new money economy made raising armies much easier. Everyone went on the offensive.

This prompted Mach to write his book, "The Art of War," which harkened back to Roman times, because back then, if anything was Classical, then it must be great. Mach wasn't promoting chariots and bronze swords, but he did like ancient Rome's discipline and use of a citizen militia.

So I'm reading along, and Mach is this great genius, busy "transcending his time" or whatever, and then the essayist Felix Gilbert throws a wrench into the whole thing on page 28.

"However," Felix tells us sternly, "Machiavelli misjudged what was possible and feasible in his own day."

So instead of Mach's notion of a citizen militia, Europe's rulers went on using paid mercenaries for the next two centuries. Mach also didn't consider the rising costs of warfare, since somebody had to pay for those shiny
new cannons. But Felix insists that all subsequent military thought proceeded on the foundations that Mach laid.

And therefore (insert drumbeats here) warfare Enters A New Age. It's always nerve-wracking when that happens. Somebody is bound to get pounded, and probably more efficiently than ever. Mighty thinkers declaim grand ideas; then narrow-minded pinheads do everything totally wrong. Nobody can think clearly about what they're doing, and the next thing you know, some crazed Civil War general is leading an infantry charge up Cemetery Ridge,

But I'm getting ahead of myself, of course. It's time to leave Mach behind and march into the seventeenth century.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Cable Car Kooks

So here I am, tapping away in an office every day, bringing in the money for rent and child care and lemon Snapples, and I’m feeling pretty good about it all. But there are those darker moments – we all have those darker moments – where the bus was late and bagel was burnt and that little flip to my hair that looked so flirty in my bathroom mirror looks a little bit stupid now. Oh, the future looks dim indeed.

But wait, a guaranteed pick-me-up is always at hand, in the form of my local online mother’s group. The group shares its name with a famous San Francisco landmark you can probably guess, but let’s call them the Pyramid Popsies or Alcatraz Escapees or whatever.

Now, I’ll admit, I was a little bemused by my Ann Arbor mother’s group. A nice bunch, but a little twitchy. Well, I’ve hit the big time now, because the maternal members of the Trolley Trilobytes have hit a new level of freakiness.

I find myself staring goggle-eyed at the posts on the Yahoo group site. One mother recently received a Pottery Barn cloth pumpkin bag as a gift, with a handle for trick-or-treating and the name "Jayden" embroidered on it. “Unfortunately,” she wrote, “this is not how my son’s name is spelled. If anyone knows a Jayden, I would be happy to mail it to you.”

First I tried to consider all the name’s alternate spellings (Jaiden, Jaeden, Jaydan, Jaeidyan …). Come on, I wanted to write. Your child is two. He can’t read. It’s a pumpkin and he can carry it and that’s all that matters. But then, maybe I can’t judge. Benny’s name on his birthday cake was “Bennie” and I didn’t care, and the sticker on his preschool cubbie says “Beny” and I still don’t care.

Meanwhile, another mother is becoming a bit hysterical about the state of her house. “My floors are being neglected. I am on the lookout for a cleaning lady who agrees to do only the floors,” she writes. This mother is willing to pay $15 an hour to the paragon who can “clean the floors so that they are good enough to eat off of, all the corners as well as the baseboards.” She thinks it would take 3 hours to do a “sparkling job” on a 1,500-square-foot house.

A third mother wants to know if anyone can recommend a great piano player for a dinner party she’s hosting Saturday night. Still another mother wonders if it’s okay to have permanent makeup tattooed to their face while breastfeeding. (I say fine, but put the baby down first.)

Finally, a mother’s 2-year-old is getting bossy and controlling, constantly telling the mom where to sit. If she moves, and he isn’t satisfied that it’s not just the right spot, he makes her move again. She wants to know what we think. “I want to be respectful of his need to control his environment,” she writes. I don’t think she wants to know what I think.

With such great material only a click away, how can I ever feel down? I laugh in the face of balky freelancers and crazy deadlines because I have my Bay Bridge Bananas group.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Say 'Cheese'

Picture Day.

Those two seemingly innocent words strike fear in the most courageous of parents. I’d been in deep denial about Picture Day for about three weeks. Frankly, I was hostile about the whole thing – why, in the name of God, would a school take the always-crazed month of September (and let’s not mention the still-unpacked moving boxes and a giant, two-week project) and toss in a Picture Day? (1)

But last night I could hide no longer. Ron needed to work late, so it was just me and Benny. The poor kid needed a bath, and I had to comb his wet hair this time instead of letting it dry all stuck-up and freaky. He actually needed a haircut, too, but it was too late for that. He needed new shoes as well, I suddenly realized, since one of his blue race-car shoes had a gaping tear in the front.

I dug through a few boxes and found his black dress shoes, which required his dress slacks and a buttoned-down shirt. Benny stood quietly, watching the movie “Charlotte’s Web” while I draped various clothing combinations on him, including two ties. (I had to give up the tie idea, since they made his shirt collars stick up.)

This morning we turned up at the school, wild-eyed and nearly 30 minutes late. The scene was total anarchy. Bright lights, harried parents, crying kids. Benny was all psyched, though, and kept trying to get into other kids’ pictures. When his turn came, he lit right up. He smiled and posed and giggled; he was practically saying, “where do I hit my mark?” The whole school was watching him, then turned to me. I shrugged sheepishly.

I’m so relieved it’s over. I seem to be saying that sentence a lot lately, but relief is my dominant emotion today. I’m so relieved to b
e finished with that crazy huge project, and yesterday’s tense editors’ meeting, and now Picture Day. Relief as an emotion gets little attention, but it’s so important. So often we rush from stressful thing to stressful thing that we never get a chance to look back and feel good about our accomplishments. Even when said accomplishment is as small as combing your kid’s hair.


(1) There was a Parent's Night event on Wednesday as well, but Ron went to that, thank heavens.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hello September

You may recall my last posts, where I waxed poetic about our woes in August and looked forward to a calmer, sunnier September.

Hmmm ... well ... it didn't quite turn out that way.

The weather cooperated, I must say: lovely sunny days with just a little more nippiness at night. I was returning to the newsroom full-time six weeks early. Everything was bubbling cheerily until a 32-story freelance project came along and smashed my schedule flat. Ron's been taking Benny to and from school every day so I can show up to the office bleary-eyed at 7:30-8:00 a.m.

Even that wasn't enough, so I'm here at the office on a Sunday morning, churning out 500-word profiles at an alarming rate. They're all due tomorrow, which of course means I'll finish them Tuesday. I also have to rewrite a 1,400-word article on a certain program that teaches economics to kids because it simply wasn't fawning enough for the publication's sponsors. This is the LAST time I write an advertorial.

Benny is settling nicely into his preschool routine, I'm told. I wouldn't know, since the Dinosaur School hasn't seen me in over a week. Ron had to quit wearing his wedding ring for a while due to an irritated spot in his finger, so the teachers probably think we divorced. But I remain a behind-the-scene presence, setting out Benny's clothes, making his lunch, writing the tuition check and finally, baking 20 pumpkin muffins with mini-chocolate chips for Afternoon Snack.

But this should all change tomorrow, when I begin to emerge from my profile-writing haze and rejoin my life. My next big project is getting Ron and myself California driver's license, which will necessitate a trip to the dreaded DMV. It's a frightening place, last time I went in 2001 I wrote a column about it. Let's hope things go better this time.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Goodbye August

Well, August is nearly over. These last four weeks have felt like a year. One month ago we were sitting in the stinky apartment on Grattan Street. We had no furniture. We had no daycare. The cat wouldn't come out of her litter box. Every day was foggy and fraught with angst.

Now the days are sunny and unseasonably warm (77 degrees!). Our new apartment is filled with books, furniture and a new twin bed for Benny. I also bought a dinette set two weeks ago for our teeny dining room. Ron and I still sleep on an air mattress and Benny's old crib mattress is serving as our couch, but we've made great progress.

Despite these triumphs, I'm glad to see this month in the rearview mirror. Nearly everything is set up, except for our California driver's licenses and long distance on our landline. Benny's first week at the Dinosaur School has been difficult. On Monday, Benny got upset every time I tried to leave. He wouldn't let go of my hand unless I was holding him. After a half-hour of this, I told Benny I would be in the school's little kitchen. I spent the next half-hour hanging out there, sneaking crackers and reassuring Benny whenever he popped up to check on me. Finally I told him I would stay until lunchtime and he was OK with that.

Tuesday was more difficult; I needed to get to work, but Benny kept crying whenever I tried to leave. I finally had to leave him crying, which was very difficult. San Francisco has a nice light rail system, and ordinarily I'd enjoy taking the train to the financial district. But this time was no fun. I was glum all day.

Wednesday was better. Benny played with his trains and ignored me when I said "Goodbye." That's my boy! I was much more chipper at work that day. Ron brought him to school on Thursday and Benny was fine with the departure. But then one of his teachers called. (She'd been calling my cell phone every afternoon., telling me some heart-rending story about how Benny missed us. Thanks, lady.) He'd been crying on and off all day.

And this morning was no better. Ron took him in again and called me two hours later at 10:15, very upset. "I'm just leaving the school," he said. "This has been a sucky morning." Benny had cried and cried until Ron simply couldn't stay any longer.

I'm due to pick Benny up in an hour, but that should be no problem. No matter what had occurred during the day, Benny is always calm and cheerful at pickup time.

I guess this school has been one transition too many for Ben. He's handled Ron's absence, the move to San Francisco, two apartments and a new daycare with aplomb. But this second daycare is obviously too much for the little guy. I'm so glad this is a holiday weekend so we get three days at home together.

I'd planned to stay home the next week, working on a freelance project. But one of the editors at the Business Times is eight months pregnant, and her doctor just put her on bed rest for two weeks. So I'll be going into the office full-time for the next two weeks. The managing editor knows about Benny's woes (he had helped console me on that awful Tuesday), so he'll understand if I come in late some mornings.

The school's teacher just called. Apparently Benny was great all day -- quit crying as soon as Ron left. I'll have to call Ron and put him out of his misery.

So hopefully next week will be better. In fact, I have high hopes for the month of September. We know where we're living, what we're doing and how to make a left turn on Geary. Our wireless Internet is working again now that I've quit putting our laundry basket in front of the modem. Look out, San Francisco!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Benny and Mommy

Here's Benny and me walking in the Marin Headlands last week. The second is the two of us making birthday treats for Ron.

Benny in San Francisco

Living Larger

Here are some pictures of our new apartment.

Monday, August 20, 2007

In the Wide World

With all the transitions my little family has made recently, a big one has been relatively ignored – my return to working outside the home.

My nervousness about returning to the office had been preempted by the whole day care issue. Why fuss about my wardrobe and the paper’s new software when chances were good I wouldn’t be in the office at all? But Reema’s “Princess School” has worked out for Benny, and he will go there until the Dinosaur School returns from summer break on Aug. 27.

So off I went on Monday, Aug. 6, to the city’s Financial District. After four years at home, I was anxious to return to the newsroom. I missed the routine and sense of purpose of an outside job. I wanted to have picky discussions about topics other than apple juice or Thomas the Tank Engine. I wanted to be part of the Wide World, moving and shaking (in a non-seismic sense, I hope).

It turned out that the Wide World is a bit smaller and goofier than I remembered. Take today, for example. I started with a high-level conference call with a major utility company so some mid-level manager could tell me about his school volunteer work. I felt a bit silly -- after numerous phone calls with the communication departments and Written Requests to High Places – to be asking questions like, “So, um, did you like the kids? Did they do a craft project?”

As for other intellectual stimulation, picky discussions abound about such topics as “did you see that weird pigeon on California Street?” or “Why does the newsroom vending machine throw our beverages at us, so that the can sprays soda when we open it?”

Still, it’s good to be out and about. I work in the newsroom three days a week this month. Then I stay home freelancing for six weeks until an editor goes on maternity leave. Then I get four more months in the Wide World again.

It’s a great setup, really. The Dinosaur School called last week, asking if we’d like to up Benny's schedule from three days a week to five. We pounced on the opportunity, which gives me even more flexibility (and hopefully, more earning power).

We’ve developed a weird little routine, but it’s working. I made Benny two little charts: a yellow one for morning and a blue one for night. I cut Benny’s head out of various snapshots and drew little cartoon bodies showing Benny brushing his teeth or eating his cereal or being tucked into bed. Now instead of Ron and I hustling Benny through our morning and evening routines, he tells us what to do next, frequently referring to the charts.

Ron’s grateful because Benny’s time at Reema’s is nearly over. The twice-daily commute to her house is killing us. We’ve been reserving a City Car Share twice a day to take Benny to Reema’s home-based daycare. Next week he begins at the Dinosaur School, which is a short bus ride from the apartment.

We appreciate City Car Share getting us through this awkward patch, but the evening routine is especially tough. Ron and I pick up the car after work and drive across town to pick up Benny. Then Ron drops Benny and me off at home, drives back downtown to drop the car off again, then takes the bus home. Bleah.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sneaking into the Marina

On my days off, Benny and I frequently take the bus to a lovely playground in San Francisco's Marina district. Ron and I lived in the Marina for most of 2001, and I always enjoyed watching the glossy natives on the weekends as they walked by, pushing their babies in $500 strollers. I even wrote a column about it for the Business Times.

On weekdays, you see the nannies and babies instead. I’m a little nervous about going to the Marina playground, though. I’ve joined a local online mother’s group, and they're very nice and helpful. But they spend a lot of time posting tattling stories about nannies.

“There was a nanny at the park Friday with long, dark hair and a white lace shirt,” a typical post would read. “She was taking care of a girl about 3 years old with blond hair, a pink top and embroidered jeans, and a boy of about 9 months in navy blue overalls and a ducky hat. I noticed the nanny spent a lot of time talking to other nannies and didn’t notice the girl using the slide in an unsafe way. She also delayed too long, in my opinion, before giving the boy the water he requested.”

Well now. Let’s all jump the poor nanny next week and shave her head.

So now I’m nervous about going to the park because I’ll know there will be a post:

“A shifty-looking blonde in a green top and boring jeans was at the park Thursday with a 3-year-old boy in a faded blue shirt and messy hair. She ate the boy’s snack while he was playing on the teeter-totter and spoke on the cell phone for an excessive amount of time.”

At that point, I guess, I’d have to post: “That was me! And that was my son! So I have the right to neglect him!”

Hmmm ... maybe I should just find another playground.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

We're here!

Look below to read SEVEN NEW POSTS about the big move, starting July 22.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Dinosaur School

I woke up a little nervous this morning because today Ron and I were taking the parent tour at the Dinosaur School. The handbook said the child can’t be present at the tour, which seems more than a little weird to me. Benny has always been a part of my daycare searches, both in Michigan and California. It seemed weird to be scratching for child care so I could keep a preschool appointment. But if that’s the way things go around here, so be it.

I wasn’t sure why Ron and I were going anyway – I mean it was just a tour. Last I heard, the Dinosaur School had no openings. But the parent tour was the first step toward getting Benny into a preschool and perhaps I should be grateful it was in August. I’d just scheduled another parent tour at some preschool for Oct. 17.

This was also a chance to test out Reema’s “Princess School” for Benny, our one and only daycare possibility. My first day of work was in five days and time was running out. (I’d already called the Russian Orphanage place and said thanks, but no thanks.)

The parent tour was at 2 p.m., so Benny and I left the apartment for Reema’s at noon. The 43 bus came fairly quickly, that part was OK. But we waited forever for the 71 bus on Haight Street, watching all the weird people, I uncomfortably aware that we were two blocks from the infamous Haight/Ashbury intersection. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and hailed a taxi.

Reema was kind and welcoming. (She knew a basket case when she saw one.) We went to the backyard, which had a very nice play structure and plastic cars and Big Wheels to ride. Benny dashed off without a backwards glance, but I was already sniffling. I didn’t know this woman, I didn’t know the preschool director who recommended her. Why hadn’t I demanded references? Was I totally irresponsible? What if my and Ron’s instincts were wrong?

I rushed out to the 71 bus stop and stood by an empty field between two buildings. It took a while for the bus to come, which was a good thing, because I was sobbing. This is temporary, I told myself. He’s only going to be there a few hours. I’ll get some parent references when I pick him up.

Back at the apartment, I had 30 minutes to change and wipe my face before Ron turned up. He arrived and we zipped over to the Dinosaur School.

What a great school! It was in a big blue house that the organization paid a mortgage on. The children were happily doing a craft downstairs. Everything was bright and cheerful. As the assistant director extolled virtue after virtue, I became more depressed and I’m afraid my mind wandered. The words “possible opening” caught my attention quickly, however.

“Possible opening?” I squeaked.

“Only three days a week,” she said apologetically.

“We’ll take it,” I said.

“It’s Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”

“Sounds great.”

“Benny can’t start until August 29.”

“Perfect,” I said.

Ron shot me a look that said, “You don’t want to talk about this?” I answered with a look that said, “Are you totally nuts?” In the end, we left with a sheaf of forms, a list of rules, and a semi-commitment to a school Benny hadn’t even seen.

Sounded great.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mother Russia

Moving day! Ron reserved a City Car Share car for 4 p.m. to move our suitcases, bedding and air mattress to our new apartment. But first Benny and I had an appointment with another daycare in the Sunset. This was the second reference from the nice preschool director with the waiting list. I hoped this second place would work out; it was close to the N-Judah rail line. I didn't think I could make that uphill trek to Reema's several times a week.

I dressed Benny in his striped sweater and little brown jacket and off we went. The train dropped us off at a very busy commercial area, packed with Asian stores. Entering the school required hauling Benny's stroller up two flights of stone steps and knocking on a huge iron gate.

"Yessss, yessss," said a hoarse voice. A face appeared behind the gate, and Benny and I stepped back hastily. It was pasty white face, utterly without color. The woman's hair was impossibly black, cut like Mr. Spock's from Star Trek. She motioned us in. "Gooood, goood."

Nervously, I entered, into a small, cramped hallway that led into other tiny rooms. Heavy white lace covered the windows. Crocheted afghans lay everywhere. Another woman with a long braid turned to look at me and Madam Strange disappeared.

"Benny!" the woman cried loudly in a thick Russian accent. After living in Prague for a year, I knew a Russian accent. (Plus I've watched "Hunt for Red October" a dozen times.)

Benny shrank back.

"Vy, you are so handsome!" She exclaimed.

She stroked his hair, then led us to another room, which was furnished in Early Russian Orphanage style. Four babies, ranging in age from six months to a year, were lined up on bouncy seats, staring straight ahead. A girl Benny's age sat on a small stool beside a bookshelf. She was also staring straight ahead. I looked around for the Teletubbies or Boomba show they must be staring at, but there was no TV. They just liked to stare. Benny's stepped closer to me.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," he whispered.

The woman lit up like a Christmas tree. "Hungry? Hungry? I make good food. Eat! Eat!" In seconds, Benny was sitting at a small table piled high with little fried things, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. He looked at me piteously.

I couldn't help him.

"Taste! Taste! It is all made HERE!" the woman said, pushing a small bowl of soup at me. I gulped a few spoonfuls. It wasn't bad, really.

"Hello? Hellooooo!" A winsome young woman with braids coiled behind her ears popped into the room with a big smile. "You are Christine? Hello, darling! This is ..."

"Benny," I said, indicating the tragicomical character in the corner.

"Benny, how sweet! How handsome! Hellooooo!" The young woman dashed over to pat his head. "Do you like music? It's time for music!"

"He likes music," I said, hoping to liberate my son from his forced snack. We trooped into another room, where a gray-haired lady was playing a goofy, unfamiliar song on an upright piano. "Wave your flags!" she sang to three older children lined up on tiny plastic chairs. They just stared, their colorful flags drooping.

Benny was herded to an empty seat while the young woman sat me down on the other side of the room. She described the school in a singsong voice, calling me "honey" and "darling" and "sweetheart." Benny kept turning around in his seat to look at me. It was time to go.

"Thank you very much, it looks wonderful," I said standing. "We have to go, but thank you."

Fifteen minutes later, we escaped, Benny still clutching his flag, me carrying the stroller and the bag of food they had pressed on me. At the bottom of the stairs, I loaded up the stroller and wheeled Benny back toward the N-Judah without speaking.

After half a block, Benny finally broke the silence.

"Mommy," he said. "I didn't like that school."

I stopped the stroller and knelt down before Benny, my hands on his shoulders. "Benjamin," I said firmly, "you are not going to that school."

"I'm going to the Princess school?"

"Yes," I said. Our choices were limited: the Princess school, the Russian school, or no daycare until fall 2008. "Who's your favorite princess?"

"Nemo," Benny said.

"What about the little mermaid?" I asked.

"I like the crab."

"OK, then." I gave Benny a kiss and stood. "Reema's it is. You certainly need to get your princesses organized, anyway." We headed down the sidewalk again.


"Yes, Benny?"

"I'm hungry."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thank God for Kansas

Meanwhile, the great San Francisco Childcare Hunt continued today. Ron stayed home from work in the morning so he could accompany us to the home-based daycare in the Sunset district. “I’ve hardly been to work at all this week,” he complained.

The place was supposed to be “just blocks” from the N-Judah rail line. Well, they were long blocks, and all uphill. We were panting as we finally crested the hill at Noriega Street and met a lovely woman named Reema.

Her house was very nice, large and clean with a good play yard out back. Reema made all the food for the kids, breakfast, lunch and snacks. She had lots of assistants to help. The kids looked happy, and Benny was captivated when half a dozen children sat around a teacher to hear “The Princess Book.”

“Did you like that school?” I asked Benny as we wheeled him back to the rail line.

“I like it!” Benny yelled. “I like the Princess School!”

Well, that was something.


I finally got the nerve to call Ralf, our moving truck driver who held all our worldly possessions. Ralf sounded very depressed.

“I’m in Kansas,” he said. “The rig broke down. Then the truck sent out to fix the problem broke down too. I’ve been here for days.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said sympathetically as I danced around the apartment. “That’s terrible.”

“I should have been there by now,” he went on dolefully. “Now it could be Tuesday, Wednesday of next week.”

“We’ll get by,” I reassured him.


Our rental agent called. She’d gone to the head of the company and our lease break was now a bona fide transfer. Our security deposit for Cole Valley would be applied toward the new place’s deposit. We wouldn’t have to find another tenant. We could sign the lease on the new place today and take possession tonight or Friday.

“You are amazing,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

I met Ron at the rental agency office. (Benny was starting to think we lived there too.) Ron wore a suit and a harried expression. “I need to write some stories,” he muttered.

We signed all the papers and forked over another check. Ron raced off to write about some guy who dealt in mouse stem cells. I called Ralf on my cell as I wheeled Benny toward our soon-to-be-former apartment.

“They fixed the rig,” Ralf said. “I got stops in Modesto and Navato, but you’ll be first. I should be there Monday.”

“No worries,” I said, smiling. “By the way, I’ve got a new address for you.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hills and Valleys

I woke up Wednesday morning, lying stuffed inside Benny's racecar sleeping bag, and instantly started fretting. Today was the estimated arrival date for our furniture from Michigan. What if our driver Ralf called today, saying he was on Highway 101 outside the city?

Perhaps I should rent a storage space, I thought. That would be a good laugh, if I had to rent a storage space just days after triumphantly closing the one in Michigan. Storage space in the city would cost a fortune. Should I rent one in the East Bay?

Ron departed gloomily for work, and I tried to entice Callisto out of the bathroom. The cat's been perfecting her Evil Cursed Stare of Death for three days now, glaring out of the doorway of her covered litter box. She hadn't touched her food. I finally lured her out with a can of wet cat food with "Fancy Beef Flavor." Let's hope it wasn't from China.

Flushed by this small triumph, I put Benny in his new stroller and wheeled him over to the commercial district to run errands. Benny is adjusting beautifully to city life. When waiting at the bus stop, I always place the folded stroller between Benny and the street, and he stands nicely behind the stroller. Benny used to fight taking my hand in parking lots back in Ann Arbor; now I just waggle my fingers and say "hand," and his little paw immediately slips into mine.

An interesting email awaited me back at the apartment -- the rental agent who found this place for Ron had heard about our squawking. She wants to show me some other apartments and says we can work something out -- some sort of transfer as long as we pick a place with the same rent or more. Elated, I call her and arrange a meeting that afternoon. She'll pick me and Benny up in her car and show us three places.

The first two places revealed a familiar pattern for this rental agency: the neighborhood is great, but the agency always owns the sorriest building on the block. But the third place ... Ron and I were blown away. It was big. It was gleaming. It was perfect. It was also expensive. How could we afford it?

"We'll take it. We'll find a way," pronounced Ron, who has felt just awful about the whole apartment crisis. The agent said she would call us with details.

Well, the agent did call, and the details weren't pretty. I held the cell phone to my ear, my mouth open, as I stood outside a Burgermeister restaurant while Benny and Ron ate lunch inside. We would have to forfeit the security deposit we'd put done on the Cole Valley place. We would need an additional security deposit for the new place, plus first month's rent. AND we'd still have to find a new tenant for the Cole Valley place. But, the agent said happily, they've agreed to waive $500 fee!

"Are you kidding?" I asked incredulously. "This isn't a transfer, this is a lease break. You expect us to shell out thousands of dollars more? Tie ourselves to a new, more expensive apartment as well as the old place?"

The agent sputtered.

"Look, I appreciate your efforts," I said unsincerely. "But if this is a lease break, then we'll break the lease. We'll find a new tenant, and then we'll find an apartment ourselves, without your agency."

No, no, the agent said. Let me call you back.

I agreed and went inside the restaurant to tell Ron. It was a quiet lunch; Benny sensed our mood and concentrated on building towers out of jelly packets. At the end of the lunch, I looked at our bill: $30. One thing was for sure, we definitely couldn’t afford San Francisco.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Missions Impossible

SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm typing this while sitting on my bed -- which, in this case, is a child-sized racecar sleeping bag unrolled on the hardwood living room floor of our new apartment. Ron and Benny share the air mattress, and the cat hasn't left her unused litter box for two days.

We're all a little traumatized. We know we're happy to be here, but we're too freaked out to appreciate this wonderful city. The apartment is not working out, and we're not sure what to do about that. A weird smell developed in the closet while Ron was in Michigan and now it's taking over the apartment. I know I didn't imagine it, because Ron smelled it too.

So on Monday the three of us hoofed it over to the rental agency, a scary entity that owns a quarter of the residential rental space in San Francisco. We were there obstensibly for me to officially sign the apartment lease, but I just couldn't do it. So I left a bored, restless Benny with Ron and sat down with an agent to explain our plight. Crazed by jet-lag and worry, I didn't make a great impression. In fact, I burst into tears.

This resulted in a visit Tuesday by the agency's district supervisor and the building manager, who claimed to smell nothing. We'd have to break our lease if we wanted out, I was told. That meant either coughing up two months' rent or finding another tenant ourselves. It would be ironic, I told Ron, if after spending five months showing a house for sale, I'd find myself showing an apartment for rent. I personally never wanted to see a Clorox cleaning wipe again.

Feeling a little desperate, I turned to another difficult task: finding daycare for a small child in San Francisco in two weeks. Ron had spoken to a lady at a marvelous-sounding school the week before leaving for Michigan. It was small (16 children total) and cute, with a good teacher-student ratio and none of that weird academic bent that I'd noticed on some S.F. preschool web sites. Dinosaur School (not it's real name) was what I wanted. Clutching their little blue handbook, I left a message at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning. At noon, the school called back. There had been an opening, but it was filled while Ron was in Michigan. Ron had scheduled a parent tour for Aug. 1, which I agreed to keep. "Maybe something will open up," the school director said. Yeah.

Now a little panicked, I spent hours on Tuesday searching online for preschools, shamelessly using someone's nearby wireless connection for my laptop. Most schools I called had a waiting list: "We have openings for fall 2008," a few school officials said helpfully. Finally a preschool director took pity on me and coughed up two names for home-based daycares in the Sunset district.

By the end of Tuesday, things looked a little grim. The rental agency's lease department called me back and described how easy it would be for us to find a new tenant ourselves. An editor from the San Francisco Business Times emailed me, asking me if I could begin work Aug. 6. Sure, I emailed back, crossing my fingers.

It's doubly sad about the apartment, because the neighborhood is just great -- everything Ron said and more. It's quiet and pretty, with a nice commercial area just a few blocks away, with a laundromat and grocery, and hardware store and crepes place. Bus lines and rail lines are just blocks away. There's a great playground a few blocks in the other direction. The great location almost makes up for the apartment.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Confessions of a Reformed Control Freak

During the seven weeks that I cared for Benny alone in Michigan, an odd thing happened. I became a control freak. So the day before we left for San Francisco, I was looking for new things to worry about, and decided to fret about the drive to the airport.

We’d hired a car, but what about Benny? His booster seat was in a moving van heading west. Should we bring his old car seat? What would we do with it at the airport, since he won’t need a car seat on the plane? I finally called the car service and they said not to worry, Benny could just sit in back, belted up. But I couldn’t let it go at that. I also changed the pickup time my husband had arranged from 3:45 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. the next morning.

Well, that final bit of micromanaging was to have dire consequences. At 4:10 a.m. on Sunday morning, we were standing in the dimly-lit living room: bags packed, cat drugged, stroller folded, Benny in his coat. No car. 4:20 a.m. No car. 4:30 a.m. No car.

Ron called the car service and learned that no car was coming. The man I’d spoken to had changed our pickup time to 4:15 P.M. Aaagh! Quickly we dashed to the dining room cabinet, pulled out a phone book and started calling cab companies. Then we endured a 20-minute nail-biting wait (which included a false alarm from our newspaper carrier. Damn, I’d forgotten to cancel our Detroit Free Press.)

A cab finally pulled up and we raced over, tossed in our luggage and screeched away. The cab made the short trip to Metro Airport in record time. We arrived panting at the check-in counter (mercifully empty), with Benny in his stroller, clutching his stuffed sheep, wide-eyed with the drama of it all.

“Oh, you’re on the 6 a.m. flight?” the airline woman asked. “I was just about to close it up.”

“We have a cat!” I wheezed, waving the health certificate.

“Yes, I see,” the lady said soothingly. She obviously knew a nutcase when she saw one.

Security was, of course, a pill. Benny refused to go through the arch alone, so I had to push him through, then follow as he yelled. I forgot to take my laptop out of the bag, so they needed to give it a thorough anti-bomb scan. Meanwhile, another security guy made Ron pull Callisto the cat out of her carrier and carry her through the arch.

We made the plane with no time to spare, the last ones to board. By now I was almost weeping with stress and my usual fear of flying. Ron, the saint that he is, amused Benny during the plane’s taxi and liftoff while I listed to my iPod and tried to convince myself we weren’t going to die.

The rest of the flight went beautifully, probably because it was completely out of my control. Benny napped in his stroller during our layover in Houston and Continental Airlines does a nice breakfast service, which we got on both legs of the flight. We landed in Oakland, Calif., on time and miracle of miracles, so did our luggage.

Benny picked out Coit Tower, Alcatraz and the TransAmerica Pyramid during the taxi ride over the Bay Bridge. I pressed my own nose against the window glass and tried to see the Golden Gate Bridge. We were home.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


ANN ARBOR -- FINAL POST -- It’s 1:05 a.m. I’m lying awake on the floor of our home office, staring wide-eyed at the shadowed trees outside. Ron is beside me on the air mattress; Benny is snuggled in his sleeping bag on the floor to my left.

Our plane leaves in five hours. Everything feels unfinished, but I can’t think of a solitary thing left to do. Our luggage is piled in Benny’s empty room, our jackets draped on top. The stroller is folded up nearby. Our taxi is reserved, the cell phones charged. The whole house has been swept, wiped and Windexed in case a buyer with wads of cash turns up with a realtor later today.

Wait … I sit up. I forgot to clear out the liquor bottles. Then I settle back. Nah … we were renting the house to my brother Andy, after all. A full liquor cabinet would only be a plus.

I stretch, and my foot hits the empty cat carrier beside the mattress. Heaven knows where Callisto is right now, probably in the basement, hiding behind the washing machine. She knows something’s up. I’d never flown with a cat before. Do I have the right cat carrier, the right papers, the right pills? How would Callisto react to a sedative? I planned to crush up her pill into wet cat food – I’d even given her a bit before midnight to make sure she liked it. Would it work? What if she spit it out, threw it up …

I sit up again. Did I take the screen door key off my key chain? And what about the donuts in the fridge? Did Andy like donuts? Calm down, Chris, everyone likes donuts. Yeah, but this is Andy …

To take my mind off my rapidly developing psychosis, I think about San Francisco. But the picture is dim, undeveloped. My reality isn’t in California; it’s here, with sighing trees and tinny wind chimes and the faint whine of the neighbor’s lonely dog. Between me and San Francisco stands a daylong airplane trip with a cat, a toddler and a layover in Houston. Try as I might, my imagination can’t bridge that obstacle.

Instead, I think of Ann Arbor: our pretty house; the winding pathway in our backyard; Benny’s school friends; my family, my friends; daffodils in the spring; leaves in the fall. I remember the four-foot snowdrifts I navigated when we brought Benny home from the hospital. I remember the first screening of the “Europa Society” and my neice’s performance in the “Wizard of Oz.” (She was both a munchkin and a monkey – such dramatic range).

We were leaving so much -- whole thing sounded nuts. Who gives up jobs, cars and Mackinaw Island fudge to live in a tiny apartment? Who wants to wait at bus stops, wheel granny carts to the grocery, feed quarters into washing machines? Who wants the hassle?

I turn over and finally, reluctantly close my eyes. Oh hell, I think. Life is full of hassles, no matter where you are. All you can do is choose the hassles you want.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Boxing Day

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Just finished up a tiring but very happy weekend. Three longtime friends came to visit me -- two were roommates from college and the third a fellow reporter from my first full-time newspaper job (I was an education reporter in Battle Creek, Mich.) Seeing any one of these women would be enough to make my week. Visiting with all three in two days makes me realize how lucky I am.

In between visits, I'm frantically packing. Seventeen lovingly taped and labled boxes are stacked up in my home office, each sporting a sassy colored tape that says BEDROOM or LIVING ROOM. That may sound impressive (probably not), except that every box containes resorted and repacked stuff from our storage space. Tomorrow I actually begin packing things that have not been packed before. I suppose that's progress.

The storage space is, thankfully, no more. I'll admit to a happy lump in my throat as I surveyed the empty space. For six months I've shuttled boxes and debris between house, storage space, the Salvation Army and the city dump. At one point the space was completely full. Benny considered the storage facility a second home, squealing happily whenever the big sliding doors sprang open and cadging rides on the little moving cart.

Speaking of Benny, the poor kid's been a trifle neglected in my packing frenzy. I actually gave him a full bath tonight, with bubbles and everything, and scrubbed the areas around his little cuts and scrapes, which had developed dark outlines because I hadn't changed his Disney Princess band-aids in days. It shows a shocking lack of maternal feeling, I know, that I found the time to pumice-stone my toes this weekend, but not tend my child's wounds.

In other news, Xena, Warrior Princess, has invaded my house, yelling "Yi yi yi yi yi YI!" While updating my "NetFlix" queue last month, I thought it would be fun to rent a Xena DVD so I could laugh at funny hats and correct mythological errors.

Well, I must have been tired, because I didn't order just one Xena DVD; I signed on for the entire first season. Every time I opened my mailbox, more Xena was inside. "What's this?" I cried. "What happened to my '24' DVDs? I want Keifer!"

Apparently Jack Bauer just can't take on Xena in open battle. I quickly realized what happened, but I was too busy to update my NetFlix queue. I watched a half-dozen Xena episodes (mostly by fast-forwarding through the fight scenes), but Xena always came back. *

Tonight, however, I emerge victorious. I signed onto NetFlix and banished Xena, promoted Keifer and added the full second season of "Sex in the City," where the battles are equally physical but the hats are always fabulous.


* Don't ask me why I didn't have 10 minutes to log on to NetFlix, but could spend whole evenings watching a screeching acrobat with a bad hair day. Such queries are not helpful.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Christine Gets a Flat Tire and Doesn't Freak Out

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- At this point in my life, when any small crisis immediately becomes a HUGE BIG DRAMA, it was refreshing to have a problem dealt with so smoothly and sensibly and with such dispatch.

I was driving back from Benny's daycare, listening to Pachabel's Canon and repeating my personal serenity prayer ("I have no fucking control over that, so I won't give a shit"), when I noticed the driver next to me was having a seizure.

OK, so he wasn't having a seizure, he was just trying to get my attention. And since I was wearing my 7:30 a.m. uniform of faded T-shirt, rumpled khakis and coke-bottle glasses, the only explanation was that something was wrong with my car. "Your tire is flat!" the man shouted as I rolled down the window. "Back there!"

Oh, crud. My car had just returned from Indianapolis (a 275-mile drive, one way) and I knew my tires were low. Now one had collapsed altogether.

Now, I am not exactly famous these days for my calm, confident responses to life's little curve balls. Generally I react to minor setbacks (a closed day care, a sick cat, a dropped earring) with rhetoric and hand-wringing suitable for a Greek tragedy. When I arrived at the doctor's last Friday for a checkup, I was so wound up from packing clothes and dispensing cat medicine and cleaning the house for a possible showing, that my first blood pressure reading hit the roof. My second one was normal, thank goodness. The nurse said the first reading was probably a bad cuff, but I know better.

Back to this morning. I simply drove to a nearby Discount Tire. They took the tire off and floated it in water to find where the leak was. "I'm turning in this car in two weeks," I begged. "I can't spend much." Discount Tire did not fail me. Those guys scrounged up a used tire from somewhere and put it on the car, free of charge. In 30 minutes I was back on the road.

Alas, my new maturity couldn't last. Within an hour I was in a loud altercation with a stubborn roll of packing tape, my shouts echoing off the walls of our nearly empty storage space. Oh well, I thought as I ground the tape roll under my heel (hard to do in flip-flops), I'm not always like this.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Why Do Cars Have Wheels?

CINCINNATI, Ohio, and ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Well, I'm back from Cincinnati, trying to put my life back together. Traveling always screws everything up, although since I'm moving to California, it's hard to tell the difference.

I'd planned to leave for Cincy on Thursday and return on Sunday, but my 105-item to-do list delayed our departure until Friday. The usually 5-hour drive took 7 hours due to construction near the Michigan-Ohio border and a bad accident on I-75 in Cincinnati. Mara and her husband Kurt must have wondered what they were getting when I finally arrived, wild-eyed from two solid hours of Benny's "Philadelphia Chickens" CD. Not that I'm complaining, since the CD and songbook spared me two hours of "Why do cars have wheels? Why are trucks big? Why do cars need gas?" and so on.

Mara and I promptly launched a steady round of late nights and excessive beer-drinking, always a sign of a successful weekend. Mara talked me into staying an extra day, prompting a flurry of phone calls where I canceled a babysitter, asked my brother to check the cat and fretted over missing a birthday party for one of Benny's friends. Mara is very persuasive; she should work for the U.N. She dragged me out to a bar after my 7-hour drive, leaving the children with Kurt. The next day we went to the park, the zoo and another birthday party. On Sunday we went to brunch and a Greek Festival. By then I'd had it, but she cajoled me into a pool party. I hate pool parties and was relieved that we arrived too late to see anyone.

Benny and I zoomed home on Monday to the music of "Rhinoceros Tap," arriving at Benny's daycare at 2:30 p.m. There I was regaled with a vivid account of the missed birthday party, which had some sort of dump truck theme. I was told the birthday boy and his mother constantly asked for Benny and that a personalized hard hat was waiting for him, lonely and neglected. Guilt-ridden, I drove home and left a groveling message on the birthday family's answering machine.

But I'm finished traveling for now, thank goodness, until I head to Indianapolis on July 6. The cat is at the vet's having some sort of dental operation, Benny is at daycare, and the temperature in Ann Arbor is topping 90 degrees. Good to be home.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day

ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- Seventeen days of single motherhood, and I'm ready for a padded cell. It took the combined efforts of my husband, my mother and a McDonald's hot fudge sundae to get me down from my tree today. Here's my day today:

7 AM: Benny wakes me up at my sainted father-in-law's house in Stevensville, Mich. He's hungry. Root through refrigerator for leftover pancake from Saturday's dinner. After 10-minute search, remember that I left the pancake box at restaurant.
8 AM: Apologize profusely to SFIL for not bringing his Father's Day card from Benny. Explain in boring detail how said card was in a tray, which was hidden away while preparing the house for showing, and then forgotten.
9 AM: Fall asleep on couch while SFIL takes Benny for a short walk. Snooze half the morning as SFIL parks Benny in front of the Disney channel and feeds him Oreos.
2 PM: Take Benny to Aunt Orla's and brag about his potty training progress.
2:20 PM: Clean up Benny Mess No. 1. Throw away his shoes.
2:40 PM: Clean up Benny Mess No. 2.
2:50 PM: Clean up Benny Mess No. 3. Listen to potty training advice.
2:52: Put Benny in pullups and growl. One of my cousins says, "Gee, last year you were so energetic and happy. This time you're so anxious and stressed." Glare at cousin over strawberry shortcake.
4PM: Ron calls. Compare my new ring tone to porn-flick music. From my cousins' shocked looks, think that perhaps that comment was not appropriate to a family gathering. Sip Pepsi. Wish for beer.
4:30 PM: Promise the cousin who's studying to be a priest to visit his seminary in Columbus. Try to imagine a scenario where a woman soon to be living in California with family in Michigan and Indiana would end up in Ohio.
5 PM: Leave for Ann Arbor. Call my mother for moral support the second I'm out of the driveway.
6 PM: Pull into McDonald's, per my mother's advice. "It will give you both a break and calm you down," she says. Park car, turn off engine and reach over to unlock passenger door. Step out, circle car and lock passenger door with key. Unlock door. Ask myself why I do that ALL THE TIME. Can I not hold a thought in the 3 seconds it takes to circle the car? Apparently not.
6:10 PM: Carry Benny into McDonald's because he no longer has shoes. Juggle Benny, wallet, purse, food and drink. Spill contents of purse on the counter. In the purse is my father-in-law's Father's Day card.
6:20 PM: Pick a table, then listen to Benny scream because he can't sit on the chair like a frog. Feel very uncalm.
7PM: Parked in I-94 construction traffic.
8PM: Call Ron for additional moral support. He speaks soothing words, but I'm not listening because I'm watching a white pickup and a white SUV in the lanes ahead flash hand signals at each other. Pray that neither party has a gun, like that lady who shot at a guy's car on I-94 in a fit of road rage.
8:30 PM: Parked in more I-94 construction traffic.
9PM: Arrive home. House is balmy 78 degrees inside. Give Benny a bath and convince him not to wear his flannel Christmas pajamas.
10:40 PM: Benny is asleep. Sip a beer and say a little prayer for all the great fathers out there.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Not a Very Useful Engine

ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- What fresh hell is this? A bunch of wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains are being recalled . Benny has a largeish collection of the trains, including acres of tracks and a special table for them. These trains and accessories were made in China, and the red and yellow paint used is full of lead. I went through Benny's toys and could only find the red stop sign. But there might be poisoned James engine and coal car lurking somewhere in the house.

I'm spitting mad. Is this not totally irresponsible? RC2 Corp., the company that makes the wooden toys, says it will replace the toys and pay shipping costs. Are they f--ing kidding? I'll never buy a toy from this collection again. I was debating whether to bring the table and trains to California and this has decided it. I'm giving all this stuff away (minus the stop sign, which, if I were a good citizen, I would put in a biohazard container and take to Ann Arbor's toxic waste center). There probably won't be room in a San Francisco apartment for a Thomas table anyway.

This is the second recall of a household item we commonly use since Ron left Business Review and, of course, the health insurance. We had hoped to avoid doctor visits until our San Francisco insurance kicked in July 1. But that's tough when the recall of an AMO saline solution (which we used exclusively since the ReNu recall last year) sends Ron and me to the eye doctor, and now the Thomas recall will send Benny to his pediatrician for a blood test for lead.

We managed to dodge the poisoned pet food and the poisonous spinach and Taco Bell food, but am I the only one considering a fat donation to the CPSC?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

OK, Now These Folks Are Nuts

I'm reading "Minding Our Own Business" by Charlotte Paul, which was published 50 years ago and is surely out of print. My copy is a tattered green hand-me-down with yellowy pages. It's the story of a husband and wife who chucked their comfortable lives in Chicago and moved to Washington state to run their own newspaper.

To say their decision to move was impetuous is a drastic understatement. Charlotte and her husband Ed gave themselves two months to quit Ed's job, sell the farm, find a newspaper on the West Coast, buy it, move across the country and start making a profit. They took shocking risks. The whole journey was harrowing. The work hours were insane. The debt was enormous. The entire book gave me a heart attack. Ed himself had a heart attack in Chapter 8. Compared to them, Ron and I are hopelessly conventional. Perhaps journalists just shouldn't marry each other.

The book opens in August 1949 with Charlotte and her husband living an idyllic life on a small farm outside Chicago. Ed had been laid off from the Chicago Tribune and now had a comfortable job in PR; Charlotte was trying to publish a novel. She left their small boys with a sitter each morning and bicycled to a neighbor's house, where she had a little office. Sounded great.

But Ed was a little bored with his job, so they decided he should quit Oct. 1. Two months to pull it off. One month later, the farm still hadn't sold, but it was time to fly to Washington and Oregon and find a newspaper. They bought one in Snoqalmie, Wash., and flew back to Chicago. Two weeks left. They sold the farm (for much less than they'd hoped), packed the kids in the car, and drove out of Illinois in the dark.

Then things really got rough. I read the whole book in a day, goggle-eyed, reading passages out loud to Ron: "That first day in Snoqualmie I had noticed that the [newspaper] building seemed to need a new coat of paint. We soon discovered that what it really needed was a coat of wood."

One of the most memorable chapters was about their first vacation. They'd planned it for weeks, it was a necessity, given Ed's heart. But everything fell apart:

"We had to wait until the paper was out, so it wasn't until 4:30 that afternoon that the four of us got into the car and started out. Hi [the older son] was stretched out on a pile of blankets in the back seat, nursing his concussion. Johnny [the younger son] was catching Ed's head cold. My face was so badly swollen I could scarcely open my mouth or swallow. Ed, our driver, was in relatively good health; all he could boast of was two heart attacks, a severe case of shingles, a head cold and a sacroiliac that had slipped out of place that morning when he lifted a bundle of newsprint."

When they stopped for gas, a state patrolman saw them and said it looked like they were going someplace.

"Actually," Charlotte wrote, "we looked like a wholesale shipment for the county hospital. 'Headed for California,' said Ed, gay as a pallbearer.'"

Amazingly, they did have a good vacation, although their house was robbed while they were gone.

That chapter reminded me of my own family's vacation to Washington D.C. in 1992, which Mom was determined to pull off despite everything. I drove us all out of Michigan after midnight in a rented minivan. My sister was ill, Andy had a very bad eye infection. It was just days after I'd completed my first year of teaching high school and my nerves were shot. We were all exhausted. It also turned out to be a good vacation and thankfully, our mobile home wasn't robbed.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Won't You Be Their Neighbor?

I apologize for being such a terrible blogger -- this is only the second post this month -- but seriously, it would all just be tedious whining about how I hate packing our stuff and showing our house.

My brother Andy has graciously agreed to rent our house if it doesn't sell. I advised him to keep the family connnection quiet, since both our next-door neighbors dislike me. One neighbor, the one with the camouflage banners (let's call him Big Foot), is trained as a Realtor. He's mad because we won't use him to sell our house and hasn't spoken to us since February.

Our other neighbor (let's call him Little Foot) and I have had testy relations in the past. Little Foot runs a dogsitting service, and started bringing around a tons of dogs right after moving in. About a dozen dogs ran around his backyard every day. I'd complain about the noise and the odor, he'd get defensive, and we had several little discussions on the topic.

Finally he found a place to run his million dogs, and our relationship is now cordial. He still gets on my nerves, though, because Little Foot is a nosy guy. The first time I met him he asked how much we paid for our house. When I wouldn't tell him, he said, "I can just find out online." I glared at him and said, "Then do so."

As soon as we put our house on the market, Little Foot asked every time we met" "Got any offers?" I finally said to him that I wished we'd get an insulting offer, just so we'd have something to say to people who asked about it. He looked surprised and said, "I was just curious." Grrrrr.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Christine Does the Math

Oh, my life is completely weird now. I'm typing this on the back deck, trying to be invisible, while a very nice couple from Delaware tours the house. Since Ron has accepted a reporting job with the San Francisco Business Times, life has taken on an odd quality: a combination of Alice in Wonderland and two months of final exams.

And it's getting weirder as Ron and I dismantle our life in Michigan. Working From Home + No Car + House Showings = Christine Huddled on the Back Porch. Or as an alternate formula: Benny + No Car + House Showings = Christine Fleeing to the Park. We sold the Jeep last week, so we're down to Ron's small Saturn, which he uses to get to work.

I'm not cranky about it (really) because I'm pathetically grateful that the Jeep sold so quickly. Gas prices are at $3.18 a gallon, which doesn't help the SUV market. I drove our 2004 Jeep Liberty over to the dealership last week, praying for a decent sale price since we still owed more than $10,000 on it.

The used car guy inspected it, then sat behind his desk and looked at me as if his best friend just died.

"I'll give you $7,000," he said.

I blinked. "That's considerably below blue book," I said. Which it was, blue book being around $9,700.

"There's something wrong with the steering," he said. "And the oil changes aren't up to date. That really hurts the value."

I was floored. "But I'm only three weeks overdue."

He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. It's indicative."

"You're kidding," I said. "You're cutting down the price because of three weeks?"

All I got was a flat stare. "I can cut you a check in 20 minutes," he said.

I stood. "Thank you, but no, I don't think so." I stomped out, irritated with myself. I should have had the oil changed, and probably cleared those bits of mulch out of the back, too. Actually, I couldn't have sold the Jeep that minute anyway, since it was in Ron's name, but I wasn't telling Used Car Guy that. Creep. Blondist. Probably is mean to his dog, too.

I went home, chugged a Snapple and called another Jeep dealership. I described our Liberty to the used car manager, Ron N., who got excited when I said the mileage was 36,000. "If it looks good," Ron said, "I can give you $10,000."

"OK," I said casually, if a little breathlessly because I was dancing around the living room. "I'll stop by."

I raced right over and Ron N. confirmed the sale price. Then I raced home and tore the house apart looking for the Jeep's title. Couldn't find it, so Ron (husband Ron) had to drive to the Secretary of State in Canton (Mich., not China) and get a duplicate title. But the next night we sold the Jeep, and wrote a check for a few hundred dollars to cover the rest of the car loan.

So I'm not crabby about sharing the Saturn with Ron, although it's hard not having a car to stuff laundry and dirty dishes in when I'm showing the house. And it is really nice sitting out here under the trees, watching a soft breeze blowing our neighbor's huge camouflage drapes around. (1) After all, Benny's not around today and the formula is simple: Benny At Daycare + No More House Showings = Christine Popping Open a Beer on the Deck.


1) Oh, the angst. The people living diagonally from us built a huge addition last year, with giant windows looking straight into our next-door neighbor's back yard. This gave our next-door neighbors the heebie-jeebies when they were relaxing in their gazebo or walking beside their little pond. So next-door neighbors hung giant camouflage draperies on one tree to block the view. They change the colors in accordance with the seasons. I'm thinking of buying them pith helmets with leafy branches as a going-away gift.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eagle Against the Sun

Yes, Christine’s military history seminar returns once again, with a brief detour into World War II. This shoots Ohio State University’s reading list all to hell, of course.

OSU’s list ordered me to read eight general works before going on to European and American military history. I read three before hopping to the end of the list. When I checked the World War II book out of the library, I imagined a room full of militant academics, all wearing those Prussian helmets with the spikes, shouting “Nein! Nein! You must follow the plan!”

My latest book is Eagle Against the Sun by Ronald H. Spector, which deals with the American war with Japan.

I took this bold step after seeing the movie “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood and shot from the Japanese point of view. (1) The main character was very engaging. We meet him digging trenches on the island’s volcanic, ashy beach, preparing for the American invasion. “Why do the Americans want this little shit island?” he asks his friend as he digs. “As far as I’m concerned, they can have it.”

I didn’t know squat about Iwo Jima when I saw the movie. I didn’t even know that famous picture of the Marines raising the flag was taken there. Naval histories bored me to death; I always skipped the Pacific theater in World War II books. But the Japanese in the Iwo Jima movie intrigued me. They had a brilliant commander and a harsh but admirable philosophy. What was the war against them like? So I hauled out Ohio State’s reading list and found “Eagle Against the Sun.”

I tell you, after three books describing military strategy and philosophy, “Eagle” read like a dime-store novel. I could actually concentrate on one war in one century in one area of the world. No more time traveling between Thermopolaye, Waterloo and the Franco-Prussian War within one paragraph. No more treatises on the development of spears and tercios and matchlock rifles. (2) Instead, “Eagle” had the American and the Japanese fleets and a ton of dinky islands and that was it. Excellent.

But now that I’ve finished “Eagle,” I find it a difficult book to summarize and review. Clausewitz and Kennedy and MacNeill spoke from the sunny heights of military theory and philosophy. They invited you to join the command centers of battle, where maps and strategies and civilized discussions reigned.

“Eagle Against the Sun” was very different. The reader did spend the first few chapters snug in his armchair, discussing the American state of mind (complacent, isolationist and ill prepared) and the Japanese state of mind (militant and bragging, but also ill prepared). The navies of both countries were enamored by a troublemaker named Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval historian whose book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” (thankfully not on the reading list), influenced naval strategy in WWII.

Mahan imagined big fleets of battleships that would fight one decisive battle and win “command of the sea.” It all sounded very dramatic and fun, so everyone went around dreaming of big guns, big ships and big battles, and practically ignoring torpedos and aircraft. The American navy endlessly replayed Trafalgar (1805) and the Battle of Jutland (1916) up to World War II. (3)

But reading Mahan wasn’t a great idea. As Spector put it, “Japanese naval officers , too, had inhaled deeply the heady, if somewhat musty, fumes of Mahan’s classic brew of imperialism and salt water.” Many historians believe that Japan’s fanatical efforts to bring about Mahan’s “decisive battle” contributed to its defeat.

So in the first few chapters of “Eagle Against the Sun” I was in familiar territory, reading about strategy and snickering at clueless, if influential, historians (remember Clause making fun of Jomini?). Pearl Harbor was described with drama and emotion – you could almost hear the dramatic music swelling in the background.

But then Ronald Spector turned to the actual war and the party was over. Before I knew it, I was thrown into the battles: the Philippines, Midway, Massacre Valley, Guadalcanal, the Gilberts, Kwajalein, the Marianas, all the way to Leyte and Luzon. I started carrying around a world atlas so I could figure out where all the teeny islands were. I didn’t know the outcome of most of the battles, so I followed the war’s twists and turns with wide eyes, elated by the victories, but most of the time just angry and sad.

But all in all, I’m glad I broke ranks and skipped to the end of the reading list. When I go back to reading general strategy (Peter Paret’s giant tome, “Makers of Modern Strategy” is glowering at me from the bookshelf), I won’t forget the suffering that all those abstract discussions ultimately lead to.


1) I liked it much better than “Flags of our Fathers,” which I rented later and found disjointed and occasionally dull.

2) The third book, “Pursuit of Power” started with 1000 AD and devoted pages to the development of iron weapons. It was enough to make a grown woman cry.

3) I will never cease to goggle at that. Trafalgar was um, against Napolean, you know. The ships had sails and were made of WOOD, guys.


Monday, April 09, 2007

The Dark Gloomy Spring of Our Discontent

When last we posted on BabySpace, our intrepid heroine was preparing her house for sale. The water heater was replaced and the basement floor stripped down to gloomy dark concrete. All that remained was a litany of picky awful chores before the house was revealed to the world.

Well, we did it, but not without more loss of funds and some serious psychological trauma. Truly, it's been too painful to write about. A simple repainting of a corner of our home office turned into a major project requiring new paint on the walls, ceiling and doorway. Ron and I tried to do it, but the project dragged on for weeks until I finally brought in two seriously weird guys to throw a little paint around. Meanwhile another guy installed carpeting and tile in the basement and Barry returned to replace our dryer vent.

The night before our home's debut on Sunday, March 4, Ron and I worked like dogs all day and were relaxing around 11 p.m. when I decided to put some cute towels in the basement's half-bath. I went downstairs and promptly stepped into a huge puddle of water. Apparently the washing machine had had a nervous breakdown and leaked all over the laundry room and into the half-bath. Ron and I gloomily mopped up the puddle, vowing never to own a home again.

The next day we gussied up the house some more. Then, one hour before the open house, while Benny was napping, I realized the upstairs toilet had been bubbling for a while. Suddenly we were in crisis mode again, because we couldn't make it stop. Ron nearly tore the thing apart, then considered turning it off, when finally, 20 minutes to the open house, it quit bubbling and we could grab Benny and flee.

The open house went well, so I went on to the second tier of picky to-dos in March. Nothing was easy. I needed to get the shades in the dining room cleaned, for example. But these aren't ordinary shades, these are fancy-linen-paneled shades with cute tassels, purchased by Crazy Phil, our home's former owner. I talked to two drapery stores and a dry cleaner before someone could tell me what the damn things were called (Roman shades). Then I visited two cleaners before I found someone who could deal with them. Apparently these shades were custom-made and cost hundreds of dollars. They certainly cost a pretty penny to clean. And the cleaning guy was kind of nuts, cornering me when I came to get the shades and talking about how women in labor shouldn't use drugs and sick people should Just Welcome Jesus.

With the house finally in order, we addressed our sadly neglected yard. We spent hours in late March raking leaves and spreading mulch and pulling up a few early-bird weeds. Ron repaired the winding path in our backyard and brought in rocks and dirt to fill up Lake Leuty, a puddle that appears whenever we get a lot of rain.

The front yard looked really good, with dozens of purple and white flowers popping up everywhere. I was very proud. We enjoyed the spectacle for three days, then an April snowstorm fell on us and wiped out everything. All our flowers are dead. I had to dig Benny's winter coat and scarf out of storage and I still haven't found his hat. Temperatures have been in the 20s for more than a week. Today it's 40 degrees and I'm pathetically grateful.

So the house has been on the market for about a month now. Lots of showings, sometimes twice, but no offers yet. I yearn for warm, sunny days and monied home buyers who don't like flowers anyway.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Dude, Read the C Blog

Marketers are a strange bunch, there's no getting around it. I bet they all live in some alternate universe, a shadowy place lit only by billboards displaying TV drug commercials. In that world, teeming hordes of consumers mill about, searching for guidance or at least a kick-ass pair of jeans.

Such a scenario is the only way to explain Turner Broadcasting's latest campaign to promote a Cartoon Network show. The company's marketing department was apparently convinced that people would squeal happily at the sight of small, blinking devices attached to a bridge and immediately shout "Aqua Teen Hunger Force!" Uh, sure.

What happened, of course, was that Boston police thought they were bombs and blew them up. I tell you, if my personal safety from terrorists ever becomes a major concern, I'm moving to Boston. It was the only major city hit by the campaign to respond. Apparently terrorists could install blinking lights spelling out "KABOOM" in every major bridge in New York and San Francisco and no one would care.

Marketers say they're driven to such crazy stunts because consumers are so sophisticated. They need to cut through the blizzard of ads surrounding consumers (and who is responsible for that blizzard?) and trigger an immediate emotional response. Quality doesn't sell. Truth doesn't sell. Common sense doesn't sell. Apparently even words don't sell, since marketers are paring their message down to a blinking cartoon character on a bridge giving us the finger.

Which brings us, oddly enough, to the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is always dreaming up new ways to attract tourism. They've given up on silly slogans ("It's a Great Time in Detroit!") and reduced this gritty, struggling city to a single letter: D. I suppose that's better than campaign's official underlying message -- a stealth slogan, if you will -- which is "Detroit: Where Cool Comes From." Congratulations, DMCVB, you've found a slogan so stupid that even you won't use it on your marketing material.

The Detroit Free Press lapped up the whole concept, opening a fawning Feb. 1 article on the campaign with: "Whatever happens in Vegas can stay there. This is the D." Then the editors presented a montage of D's through history. Jesus, is this a reputable newspaper or Sesame Street? Will E be the letter of the day today?

Maybe I just don't get it. The convention bureau says it's targeting young people ages 21-34, those too young to remember the 67 riots or Detroit's bleak winter of 1981. (For a really good history of Detroit during the 70s and 80s, the era the convention bureau apparently wants to sweep under the rug, read David Halberstam's "The Reckoning." It remains one of my very favorite books.)

Anyway, the convention bureau doesn't want cranky folks like me. They want the young, hip, grungy crowd. Maybe they're right, but I can't imaging edgy, disaffected 20-somethings sitting around saying, "Detroit could be a cool place -- if only it had some fancy metal Ds on its marketing literature."

Oh hell, maybe Detroit's marketers are right and I am wrong. In fact, maybe even a D is too complicated -- too old-fashioned and cerebral. Maybe the convention bureau should put some blinking guy on the RenCen, giving everyone the finger.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Home Repair Hell

Well, thank god we’re almost through January, which at our house has become The Month of Home Repair. Those last two words always make me want to lie down in a darkened room -- now a viable option since our handyman has fixed the bedroom’s broken window.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain (not that it’s ever stopped me before), since we’ve lived in this house for nearly four years without a home repair bill. Are we lucky or just slothful? I suspect the latter. I mean, I broke that bedroom window a year ago while trying to jam an ill-fitting shade into its bracket (socket? docket? moppet?). So yeah, we haven’t paid any home repair bills before this month, preferring to live with broken windows, sticky doors and cracked caulking.

But now we’ve decided to sell said house, since Ron’s daily commute to Oakland County has given him nervous twitches and a predilection for weird audio books. (“Who will you meet in Heaven?”) Plus Benny refuses to add the Daddy when he plays with his stuffed sheep family because “the Daddy’s at work.” It’s just a difficult situation.

So we’re selling the homestead during what the Detroit Free Press calls a “perfect storm” of economic misery. The National Association of Realtors, the Free Press continues, said last year that Metro Detroit had suffered the sharpest decline in home values in any large urban market in the nation.

So we’re really excited, as you might imagine. Determined to wring every last drop of blood from this stone, we’re doing home repairs, walking that fine line between adding value to the house and just throwing money down the drain (or the basement, to be precise).

The phrase “doing home repairs” is, of course, terribly misleading. You might imagine me or Ron replacing hinges or popping off old tiles. Actually the real process is less impressive. I make a list of the most necessary jobs: fix windows, recaulk bathtub, deal with basement (affectionately nicknamed “The Evil Dungeon of Cat Hairballs).

Then I whine about the list for weeks, frequently lying down on the bed and glaring at the broken window. Then I reluctantly call a handyman recommended by a local hardware store. His line is busy. I lie down again, exhausted by my efforts. But Barry the Handyman calls me back (curse that caller ID!) and I reluctantly admit I have some jobs for him and try not to groan when he says he’s free this week.

Barry shows up with his son and they’re unfailingly kind and patient with my sorry self. I feel humiliated, pointing out all the problems I’ve ignored for years, but I rally until we come to the bathroom electric outlet.

The outlet is itself is fine, but the cover isn’t screwed on. The house’s previous owner (who frankly had more do-it-yourself spirit then was good for a man) had updated the outlet per our home inspector’s recommendation, but didn’t have time to attach the cover.

“No trouble, I said blithely then. “We’ll get that screwed on this weekend.”

Ahem. Well, three and a half years later, and the cover still hangs there, fastened only by a round nightlight. Barry looks at me blankly, then instructs his son to screw the cover on – no extra charge. Barry Jr. does it in two minutes.

After that harrowing experience, I was ready to abandon all home repair efforts and tell prospective buyers the house had “lots of character.” But then our water heater busted, leaking all over the basement carpet. (Why do you always discover these things at 11:45 p.m.?)

So I only had eight hours to whine before calling Barry again. He bought us a new water heater, installed it, took the old one away and advised me to call our insurance agent. Maybe they can clean up the water damage. “Who’s your insurer?” he asked.

I had no clue. This is another reason why home repair is so stressful. I’m just ignorant. I don’t know how old my water heater is, I don’t know when we last replaced our furnace filter, I don’t know the square footage of our basement, I don’t know whether our electricity operates off fuses or circuit breakers (although I did guess right on the last).

I did find our homeowners’ policy, but our deductible was too large to save any money. Which left me and Barry and Barry Jr. staring at the basement carpet, unequivocally damp and smelling faintly of mold. It had to go.

So I sent them away, lay down in a darkened room (admiring my unbroken window), then consulted Ron, who frothed at the mouth at the idea of paying the Barrys to rip up the carpet. “I can do that!” he cried over the phone.

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “But we don’t know what’s underneath. You want to rip out rotted subfloor?” I painted dire pictures of putrid sinkholes and nests of trolls living under our basement carpet, then promised to write some articles to pay for the work.

“But you have to be there when they start ripping it up,” I said.

Ron agreed. We finished shoveling out the basement Tuesday night. Ron dropped the kid off at daycare yesterday morning while I put our cat in Benny’s bedroom and our dirty laundry in the home office. Then Ron and I lined up wide-eyed on the basement stairs for the ceremonial First Cut.

We got off easy. The carpet wasn’t even glued down. The only thing underneath was concrete and some old tile. Ron fled to the safety of work and I hid in Benny’s bedroom with my laptop and the cat while the Barry’s hauled out carpet and tile and mopped the concrete.

So now we’ve come to the end of this episode of home repair. We’ll have to cover that concrete somehow, but we’ve run out of momentum … and money. The basement will have to wait until March. For now, I think I’ll go lie down in a darkened room. Or maybe not. The vent cover on the floor looks like it might need replacing.