One Word: Plastics (paid for all this)

Alex: We just hadn’t planned on a change of plan.

Jane: Well who plans on a change of plan? I mean, that would be sorta paranoid, don’t you think?

Laurel Canyon (2002)

I’m sure you suspect by now that Wee One isn’t so “wee” anymore. In fact, she turned 18 a few weeks ago.

In addition to that, she graduated from high school this spring, in a ceremony that costs the City and the students something in the neighborhood of $30,000, because that school can’t do anything without over-complicating it in the name of “tradition”.

Ripken Stadium Entrance Gate
Ripken Stadium. This wasn’t from the Sweet 16.

Wee One doesn’t get a lot of parties, but we compensate by making the ones she does get, a little bit bigger. For instance, for her Sweet Sixteen we rented a box suite at Ripken Stadium and a bunch of her friends joined her in a party at the Ironbirds Opening Day festivities (with fireworks, naturally). We rented a large van to transport kids who couldn’t get to the stadium, the kids got souvenir hats and junk, they all ate well, we managed to keep them more or less contained, the Ironbirds won, and we got fireworks to boot. Not too shabby.

So this time around for her graduation party (she wanted that rather than an 18th birthday party), we decided to expand things a little bit. After all, there would be more family members involved, plus adult-age friends and well-wishers. And Wee One wanted a DJ who could also do Karaoke. So we started looking into booking a space in a restaurant’s private room area.

Based on a little Internet research, our first stop was a place called Johnny Dee’s Lounge, just off of Loch Raven Blvd. The guy we spoke to was pretty great and very flexible with the menu (and reasonably priced besides), but we weren’t sure that the space itself was suitable for our event, so we passed. That’s not a knock on Johnny Dee or his Lounge. We’d certainly consider them for a different event.

Our next stop was at Hightopps Grille in Timonium. Wife spoke with them on the phone and outlined what we needed, and the person she spoke to, named Michelle, told us about this dining space with an outdoor patio adjacent that could also be used, weather permitting. Ooh, nice. So on the weekend, we went to visit the restaurant, sample the food and see what the waitstaff knew. As it happened, we got a very knowledgeable person who was able to answer most of our questions, with which we peppered her throughout our meal. We came away with a good feeling and I emailed Michelle to tell her we were interested in having the party during these hours on that day, and we’d just gotten the menu so could we lock that down at a future date? No problem, says Michelle, and I’ve booked a room for you. (This turned out to be a red flag we’d overlooked.)

So Wife and I perused the menu and put together something affordable but not cheap (it’s a fine line, sometimes), and left a little bit of wiggle room so that when we presented it to Wee One, she was able to have a little bit of say in what was served up.

About ten days out from the party: Wife got back in touch with Michelle to finalize the menu and the headcount. That’s when she learned that we weren’t getting the dining area with the patio; instead we’d been booked into a private room in a different part of the restaurant. What’s more, it was a space we hadn’t previously seen. For several reasons, this was a potential problem: we figured the space we thought we had was just about big enough for our party, plus the patio area (assuming the weather was good) would be a decent escape zone for anyone who thought they needed a break from the music. We had to go back in and look at the new space.

One week out from the party: the new space was definitely a no-go. There was no room for the DJ, it wouldn’t hold all of the people in our headcount, it was dominated by a bar (in a party for a teenager), and everyone had to pass through the main bar to get to the party. Even if it hadn’t been a kids’ party, it wouldn’t have held our headcount, with or without the DJ taking out a table’s worth of space, and even if you took the bar’s stools into account as “seating”. The manager on duty was sympathetic but really couldn’t do anything for us—and he did look for a few options—and Michelle wasn’t available. What about Michelle’s boss? Nope. Michelle IS the boss. She’s the owner of the restaurant. She’d ignored half the details that Wife had given her and was going to try shoehorning us into this corner. Go sit in at the card table over there, kids, while the Big People (read: better spenders) eat at the grownups table. We were screwed, plain and simple. Hightopps was out, and they’d created a huge problem for us.

We got back in the car and started to cruise York Road, looking at restaurants and wondering what alternatives we had. When you’re only a week out, you also have to worry about paying a premium for asking them to do this on such short notice.

I really don’t remember who thought of it, but one of us had an idea. And it was one of those ideas that, when we had it, we wondered why we hadn’t thought of it in the first place. What about The Barn? We’d been there plenty of times, they have a decent-size space, they have a permanent zone for entertainers, half the staff knows who we are…what kept this place off our list? It’s still a mystery.

For the uninitiated, The Barn is a restaurant/bar that’s in the area where Parkville and Carney kind of mix together, near the intersection of Harford and Joppa Roads. The place called “The Barn” is actually gone; it’s been remodeled and is the new home of The Charred Rib, which coincidentally used to be in Cockeysville. So now they’re The Charred Rib at The Barn, but most people still just say The Barn.

Image result for charred rib at the barn

I remember The Barn in its older incarnation: shortly after I moved to Baltimore, someone invited me to come up there for Karaoke Night. I was living at the exact opposite end of the city, and didn’t have a good handle on what was where, plus I didn’t really know anyone yet. But I went and, while the place had a bit of a used-up feel, I had a decent time. Oddly enough, I even remember the date: it was January 29, 2002. But I’ve digressed enough so I’m not going to tell you why I remember it. (Hee.) Anyway, the place got VERY cleaned up at some point and is really nice.

There are two levels to the building: the top level is the full-time bar and restaurant area, and the bottom level is used in the evenings, and is where bands come to play. The walls are absolutely covered with rock and roll posters and memorabilia. (If you ask where the restroom is, you’re told to “go back there and turn left at The Beatles.”) Perhaps, we surmised, they’d be willing to accommodate us in the lower level. Wife called them up and managed to get one of the big dogs on the phone. He needed to check on another thing that was happening that day, and promised to call us back. Ten minutes later, we got a return call: we could have the space if we wanted it. Ten minutes after that, we were in the restaurant itself meeting with him and putting a menu together. A few hours after that, we were getting the word out that the time and date hadn’t changed, but the venue had.

The Queen of Karaoke
Wee One, Karaoke Queen

And precisely one week later, we had a fantastic party, thanks to the folks at The Barn. We spent a comparable amount of money to what we would have spent at the other place, but we’re pretty sure we got more food for our money. Everyone had a great time, Wee One was happy, Wife was happy, the folks at Discover Card are happy. And The Charred Rib at The Barn has another positive review on Trip Advisor and Yelp.

Father’s D’Oh

Walter: One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony.

—Alien: Covenant (2017)

Let me tell you about my Father’s Day today.

It’s possible—but not likely—that this is my last Father’s Day with one of my kids in the house. Daughter is living the adult life in North Carolina, and now that Wee One has graduated from high school, we have to consider the possibility that she’ll be spending her summers working, or otherwise occupied somewhere other than this immediate area.

So I figured, hey. Let’s do a little day trip, just the three of us. And everybody was good with it, so we packed into the car and headed up to the little town of Gardiners, Pennsylvania. I had two destinations in mind. Up in Gardiners there’s a farm stand called Peter’s, which isn’t a huge deal or anything, but it’s a destination and it’s a reasonable distance from home. We head up I-83 from the city, jump off a few miles after crossing the state line, and from there it’s a bunch of rural and semi-rural roads. So…nice views, rolling hills, just relax and sing along with the radio and gab about whatever, and then buy some strawberries or whatever’s in season (plus a surprise for Daughter next time she visits). AND, as we cruise through the area, there are a bunch of little antique and second-hand stores in between that we can poke in and out of.

Shortly before Peter’s however, in the town of York Springs, there’s a place called Concrete Jungle. It’s a small business dedicated to making, and selling, concrete statues, planters, birdbaths and such for people’s gardens. We’ve been there a few times and picked up a few items for our yard. This isn't ours because, as usual, I'm writing in the middle of the night and can't take a picture. More often than not, when we get something we’re paying a pretty low price for it compared to, say, Home Depot or Lowe’s. (As a For Instance, we purchased a pagoda lantern very much like the one in this picture for about $40; anywhere else it’d be twice that.) So this time around we popped in because we were in the market for a pair of matched planters for the front of the house. And sure enough, we managed to find a couple of nice ones that went for about $50 for the pair. Sweet! They’re plain concrete right now but we can color and then seal them to match the steps. I’d take a photo of them, but they’re still in my trunk. Also, it’s dark outside as I write this.


We picked up some strawberries and a couple of other goodies from Peter’s, then headed home. It was during this leg of the trip that we realized we hadn’t really eaten. As we passed through the town of East Berlin, Wife spotted a pit beef place and suggested we stop in there.

And that’s where things started to go south.

The place is called Hog Wild. It’s set back from the street and fronted by a patio with picnic tables. A few other, smaller tables sat on an elevated platform along one of the walls. The walls surrounding this area are covered with vintage (or, more likely, “vintage”) signs (not a knock, I know you can get a lot of these via catalogs and such). Inside are two or three tables and a service counter. We went inside and pored over the menu for a minute. Wife had a couple of questions because of her allergy, and the guy behind the counter, who turned out to be Rick the owner, was brief but forthcoming with his replies. His attitude seemed to have a little of “these guys aren’t locals; I’m gonna screw with them a little bit” or maybe he was just feeling a little acerbic, I don’t know. But Wife ordered Pit Beef without a roll (again, because allergies) but with onion. Then she asked if there was more than one size of the French fries, and he said, “There’s only one size: small.” So she ordered fries as well, and a lemonade. I was up next and ordered a Pit Beef sandwich with a roll, and with a little bit of onion. He asked if I wanted any barbecue sauce or anything on it, and I said “Oh–sure. I thought I saw it on the table, that’s why I didn’t bring it up.” He told me that it was out there, so I told him not to bother putting it on the sandwich, this way I could experiment with the different sauces out there. I ordered a can of Coke to go with it. Wee One ordered the Smoked Dip, which is essentially a Pit Beef sandwich with a side of Au Jus for dipping, an order of fries that she wanted to split with me, and also a lemonade. Total for these three lunches: $38.11. A little pricey, but OK. However, when I broke out my credit card, he simply pointed over my shoulder to the ATM and told me I could get money from there. Ugh. A little warning before this point would have been nice. I went to the ATM, withdrew $40 (and, of course, paid ATM fees since it’s an out-of-network machine), paid him and we went outside to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait some more. I thought maybe I was just being impatient and not keeping track of the time, but the timestamp on my ATM slip said that I’d taken the money out at 2:10. By this point it was nearly 2:40. I said to Wife, “It doesn’t seem like they’re especially busy and our order wasn’t that complicated; I wonder what’s going on?” Wee One noted that nearly everyone out on the patio was waiting for food, and they’d all been there at least as long as we had.

At about 2:55 our food finally came out. The girl who served us asked Wife about her food sensitivity, because she was having a problem of her own and hadn’t nailed it down yet. Before she walked away, I said, “Can I ask a question? Is a 45-minute wait for the food typical?” This was genuine curiosity on my part; I’d been in plenty of pit beef places and while all of them had some kind of wait, none of them took that long. She looked taken aback by the question, almost as though nobody had ever asked it before. She said, “It’s not fast food!”

I said, “I get that, but I didn’t think you needed to raise the cow first.” Which I admit was a little snotty, but also so hyperbolic that nobody could reasonably think I meant it. Her reply: “I’m not forcing you to eat here.” That’s when I said, “Whoa. All right, then.” and let it go.

After she left, we talked about whether I’d said anything that was truly out of line, and ended up with “eh, not really.” Because here’s the thing: it’s a yes-or-no answer, really: either the answer is “No, but we’re shorthanded/we’re busier than usual/something broke down in the kitchen/whatever” or it’s “Yes, we spend all our effort on each order before moving on to the next/we hand-cut the fries so they take longer/something else.” Going on immediate defense with something like “It’s not fast food” was a little out of left field.

We began to eat our food. My sandwich, which I’d ordered with “a little bit of onion” had nearly as much onion as it did beef, but that’s no tragedy; I took off what I didn’t want and moved along. The food was…fine. It was pit beef; we’re not talking Serious Gourmet stuff here. As we finished our food, Rick himself came out asking if there was a problem with the food. “No,” I said. “The food was fine.”

“OK,” he replied, “because you upset my daughter when she was out here, and—”

Now frankly, I don’t really remember what the rest of his sentence was, because now I’m replaying in my head and I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, all I asked was—”

Unfortunately for me, he was on a roll and told me he didn’t want to hear about my whoa whoa whoas. (Yes, he told me that.) I repeated: “I just asked her whether a 45-minute wait was typical.”

“Do you see all the tables in there?” All three of them? Sure, I guess. That launched him into another tirade about if the food was no good he’d be happy to refund our money and send us on our way. Again I said, “The food was fine.” Now he’s moved on to We don’t need your kind here and I’m going to ask you to leave. I’m literally just sitting there wondering what the hell is going on. At this point the most I can muster up is just “Wow….Wow…” and then “OK.” I stand up and without another word, walk away from the place. Wife and Wee One, who have said very little at this point (because they were just as stunned), also got up and left, but that didn’t stop Rick, oh no. He kept on yelling at us, and at the other customers about us. I didn’t realize at the time he was doing that, because I’d left so directly that I figured that Wife had engaged with him and now he was yelling at her. But nope: they were right behind me and he was still doing his thing as I reached my car, across the street, with the rest of my family pretty much on my heels.

So in the end I really don’t know what set anyone off here. Maybe he was having an especially bad day. Maybe being in a town called East Berlin puts you in a Cold War frame of mind. Maybe when there are few other options for eating in a small town, you can generally get away with stuff like that. Maybe a million things. But the fact is, when you go to a small town, pay $40 for lunch ($2 ATM fee counts, in my book), and get abused out of the blue by the owner, it puts a bad taste in your mouth—you should excuse the expression—for the entire town.

Remember what I said several paragraphs ago about going antiquing as well? There are several places in East Berlin, PA that we had earmarked as potential stops when we were on the way up to Peter’s. Do you think we stopped in any of them on the way back? Not a chance. Our instinct was to get out of town as quickly as possible. But there were a few places that got our attention, and our money…in Thomasville, and Shrewsbury, and a couple of other spots on the way home.

Soak Up The Sun

Maj. Don West: We’re not getting any power. Must be a loose connection in the solar batteries. I’ll go up and see if I can fix ’em.

Lost in Space, “The Hungry Sea” (10/13/65)


I was saving this story until it had more of an ending, but what the hell.

These guys.I do like being an energy-efficient kind of guy, not just because it keeps the bills down, but because Save the Earth and all that. So when I saw a representative from Solar City standing in Home Depot, I figured it was at least worthwhile to talk to someone about it.

So I chatted for ten minutes with a very pleasant lady, who gave me the basics about how it works and such. She was having a hard time getting the wifi signal on her tablet to work, but she still managed to get enough information across that I decided we needed to hear a little bit more. So she took down my information and that was that for the time being.

A few days later I heard from someone at the company. He wanted to make an appointment with both me and Wife so he could show us the whole thing and make sure all of our questions were answered. We set the date and that was that for the time being.

During the visit, the way the plan was explained to me was this: Solar City puts the panels on the house at no cost to us. Then, for the next 20 years, we’d be buying some of our electricity from our regular supplier, and some of it from Solar City (but at a lower rate). Whatever the panels generate that doesn’t get used, would roll back into the grid, effectively turning the meter backward. Solar City then makes money that way as well, by being the ones who sell the electricity back to the electric company. If the panels need maintenance, we just call them and they make the fix (or, something at our end detects a problem and alerts Solar City). After all, they own the things. If we need roof work, they’d come out and remove the panels until the roof is fixed, and then they’d put them right back on. Our only obligation is to pay for the electricity they generate, and pay for 20 years. If we move or die, the 20 year lease transfers to the new owners (because, who knows: maybe our new place doesn’t get enough sunlight).

So, to break down that deal in bullets:

  • They install and maintain the system.
  • We buy some of our electricity from BGE at the usual rate.
  • We buy the rest of our electricity from Solar City at a lower rate, and this is ALL we pay for.
  • Solar City gets the profit from the electricity flowing back into the grid.
  • The deal is attached to the HOUSE for 20 years total.

This whole thing was acceptable to us, so we agreed to move forward. They set a date for a guy to come out and measure/inspect our roof, and that was that for the time being.

Not Pictured: My daughter's window, you perverted fuck. Awhile later, the guy came out and did his thing. He had a Google Earth photo of the house (the initial salesman did, too), and he had a rough idea of how many panels were going to be put up there. Every jurisdiction has its own rules about this sort of thing, and in Baltimore City, solar panels have to be three feet away from EVERYTHING, including the edge of the roof (including the peak), chimneys and any vent pipes that might be sticking up. So given the size and configuration of our roof, they figured that they could put eight panels up there. In the meantime, the roof itself is in very good shape, so that’s encouraging. He took his measurement notes and such, and the next step is having a formal design drawn up.

After a couple of weeks, I got an email with the design for our panels. This is the document that they’d be sending to Baltimore City as part of the permit process (another step I didn’t have to deal with). You can see part of the image to the left, here. The front of the house (with the dormer) is to the top of the picture, and the rectangle on the bottom is where my kitchen sticks out. Most of the other stuff (the D, M, and AC) are utilities that are actually in the basement. “Inv” is where the inverter would be mounted to the side of the house. “B” is the junction box that would lead from the panels down to the inverter. The inverter is the gizmo that turns the solar power into something that the electrical appliances can actually use. According to the legend (I cropped it out), there are supposed to be lines indicating where the conduits go, but they’re not on this picture. So Solar City took this picture and a bunch of paperwork and submitted it to Baltimore City for the zoning approval, and that was that for the time being.

Several weeks went by, and finally the word came back that Baltimore City had approved the plans. Now, all we needed was an installation date.

Awhile after that, we got an email AND a phone call from Solar City that it was time to schedule the installation. I called them back and got a date. It was a weekday, so I had to take a day off, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Installation Day: I don’t get to sleep in, because they’re coming kind of early. A truck pulls up, and while their crew chief is talking to me, there are guys running all over, carrying equipment and such and getting it ready for the install. Other guys are setting up ladders to get on the house. I show them where everything is, then I pen up the dogs in the kitchen because these guys are going to be all over the inside and outside of my house. Some of them will need to be in the basement fooling with the circuit breakers, one guy will be in a bedroom attaching some gizmo to the internet router, others will be on the roof and side of the house. And the work proceeded apace, until…

…until it wasn’t. At some point in the afternoon, it occurred to me that I wasn’t hearing people running around, nor was I hearing much of anything else. I went to the front door and looked outside. The truck was gone. The crew was gone. Most of the trash generated by their work had been cleaned up; what remained wasn’t a big deal. But that was IT. They’d left without saying anything to me at all. I called Solar City and they were puzzled by this too, but they did say that the next step was to have BGE inspect the installation and install a Net meter. A Net meter is the kind of meter that can run backwards and allow the power from the panels to come through. So we needed an inspection date from BGE, and that was that for the time being.

A little time went by and I called BGE to see what was up. BGE told me that they hadn’t received the completion paperwork from Solar City, and once they got that they could do the inspection and then SCHEDULE the meter installation. Aha. So that’s a separate step, then. So I had to wait for Solar City to set up the inspection and that was that for the time being.

The inspection itself was a relatively brief affair: a guy from Solar City came to the house and waited for the guy from BGE to show up. BGE’s concern was largely related to the interior of the house, but it was brief and largely consisted of the BGE guy nodding sagely at everything the Solar City guy told him and then giving the whole works his personal blessing, which came in the form of a sticker I had to affix to the electrical panel. Can I schedule the Net meter installation now? No. In a few days Solar City will send them some information and THEN I can schedule my Net Meter. And that’s that for the time being.

A week or so later, I was able to set up the Net meter installation. If your meter is outside, no problem: they’ll just go and do it and you’ll never know it happened. If it’s inside, well, I hope you have another day off to spare. And BGE is like so many utilities in that you get that gigantic window of opportunity for their service person to show up. You know how long it takes to change out a meter? About five minutes, and your entire house loses power for maybe thirty seconds. The next step is getting word from Solar City with the directions for actually turning your system on.

So the email came in, but not everything looked quite like the pictures in the email, even though they’d accounted for several different systems. The problem was that I was supposed to turn on a circuit breaker down in the basement. And the problem with that was that there was NO breaker dedicated to the solar system in the panel. There was a breaker that had been identified on the chart as being the Solar breaker, but it actually connects to an outlet in my kitchen. On the panel itself, there was a big red sticker reading SOLAR, but it was over a blank space (i.e., no breaker) on the panel. So I called Solar City and told them that I couldn’t follow the directions as emailed. They said they’d send a technician out, and started to set up yet another weekday for the visit, but I put my foot down. It was several minutes of me complaining before they agreed to send someone out on the weekend.

A few days after the phone call, on Saturday, the technician arrived. First I showed him the display on the inverter and such, then I showed him the electrical panel. He opened the thing up, and sure enough, there was wiring but no breaker in the place indicated by the panel sticker.  So remember how I told you about the inspection and what it entailed? Now you know what I mean. If the BGE guy had taken two minutes to open the panel and see that there was no breaker in place, the inspection would have failed. So the technician installed the breaker and fired everything up. So far as he could tell, everything was running fine.And that was that for the time being.

About a week ago, I got an email and a phone call telling me that the system is registering zero output, and I need to call them. Because I was out all day Saturday, I didn’t get to call them until Sunday. The person on the phone asked me a few questions about what was on the display, then he told me that another technician had to come out. I told them that as
long as they don’t have to come in the house, they can come whenever they like during the week. They set me up for Thursday in the afternoon. They even gave me a courtesy call on Wednesday telling me that the arrival window had changed slightly. I told her, “Frankly, I don’t care because I’m not gonna be there.” On Thursday evening I got home and there was a door-hanger waiting for us: “Sorry we missed you!” and, at the bottom, an hand-written note: “System is off and electrically stable.” Thanks, guys! I didn’t know that stability was going to be an issue! I gave them a call.

According to their system, the tech had reported that some part of the inverter itself had gone bad and needed to be replaced. So they had to order something, which would take 7-10 days to get in, then they’d contact me to discuss coming back to replace it.

So that’s where the story ends for the time being. I have a system on my roof that’s generating zero electricity, and maybe it’ll be working again in a couple of weeks. But let me lay some extra details on you, because I’ve been deliberately obscuring them until now. Here’s the entire timeline (some of this I’m filling in gaps, other stuff I have the emails saved):

  • I met the woman in Home Depot in June 2015.
  • Wife and I met with the salesman in mid-July 2015.
  • The guy who inspected the roof and did the measuring came at the end of July 2015.
  • On August 13, 2015 I got an email that the design had been finished.
  • At the end of August came the approval from BGE to install a system.
  • On November 3 I got the email that it was time to schedule the installation.
  • On November 20, the crew installed the system.
  • In early December the system was “inspected” by BGE.
  • On December 30, BGE still hadn’t received anything from Solar City, so they couldn’t schedule the meter installation.
  • On January 12, BGE let me know that I could finally schedule the meter installation. That got done sometime over the next week or so.
  • On February 10, Solar City told me that they’d gotten the final approval from BGE.
  • On February 18, I tried to start the system and failed because of the missing breaker.
  • On February 20, the technician arrived and fixed it. So
  • The system generated power from February 20 through March 30, then stopped.


  • On April 2 I got the “No output” email and phone calls.
  • On April 3 I called them and was told a tech had to come out again.
  • On April 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, according to Solar City’s website, the system was generating power
  • On April 8 it stopped again, presumably because the system had been shut off.

So counting from an approximate date of June 15 (although it was probably earlier because school was still open) to today, that’s 299 days I’ve been involved with Solar City, during which time I’ve had panels generating power on my roof for a grand total of 45 days. Not an auspicious start, I say.

And that’s that for the time being.

Everything Comes in Trees

Cameron Tucker: Mitchell, where were we sitting when Lily first rolled over?
Mitchell Pritchett: Under this tree.
Cameron Tucker: Where is home base when we play hide and seek?
Mitchell Pritchett: Under this tree.
Cameron Tucker: And where did we sought shelter from that frightening lightning storm?
Mitchell Pritchett: It wasn’t a good idea, but it was under this tree.

Modern Family, “When a Tree Falls” (11/28/2012)

When we moved into the current Parkville Palace one fine Spring morning several years ago, Wife and I were especially taken with a couple of large trees that were in the yard.

One was a gum tree, which resided in the front yard. Frankly, it wasn’t long before the novelty of that tree wore off. The gum tree is one of those jobbies that drops the big spiky balls later in the year. And as the Spring became Summer and the tress all over started putting forth leaves and such, it was clear that this tree was in a bit of distress: there were several branches that weren’t producing leaves. Plus the spiky balls were just making it impossible for me to walk around barefoot out front, and they made the lawn mower sad as the blade would hit them, and the first couple of hits would just ricochet the balls around the inside of the mower before the blade managed to finish them off. When, during that first Winter, the tree actually dropped several branches, we realized that it was probably not long for this world and we should consider having it removed.

Farewell, old friend.The other tree, in the back yard, was a big cedar tree. It was about 50 feet tall and a beautiful old thing that provided just the right amount of shade for the corner of the yard where we had the patio and the pergola installed. We loved the tree, but unfortunately over the last couple of years, we could see that it wasn’t doing well: branches were dying off or falling from the tree altogether; it was starting to lean a little bit, and so on. We started to wonder if that one could be saved, or if it would have to go as well.

Finally we made the call to a couple of places and asked them to come in and give us estimates to have the trees removed. One place gave us a price that was over $2000 for those two trees, plus a dogwood that he’d noticed was also about at the end of its life. The other one, AmeriTree, was more in the realm of $1600 so we went with them. I called them up and the woman who answered the phone said, “OK, I think I have some spots open this week, let me get the calendar.” Before I could continue that there were some date constraints, she’d put me on hold. When she came back she immediately launched into “OK, I can get you down for either Friday, or Saturday—“ at which point I finally interrupted her and told her that she’d put me on hold too quickly, and I needed a date after July 11. (For those of you not in the know, July 11 is the second Saturday in July, the weekend that Wife and I stage our Annual Pig Roast. And if you’re not in the know, why not? Why haven’t you been coming?) We settled on the 13th.

On July 8th, AmeriTree called me to tell me that they see they have me down for the 13th, but a spot has “opened up” on Saturday the 11th, could they come by then? I told her no, we have a lot of guests coming that day, and they were all going to say goodbye to the tree. (Yes, I really said that.)

On July 9th, a guy working on a tree in another yard nearby came by and suggested to Wife that the gum tree probably needed to come down, and could he put in a bid on it? We told him that we’d already committed to a company. Out of curiosity, he asked who we went with. We told him it was AmeriTree. He said, “Okay.” Then, after a beat, he said, “You should be careful; those guys aren’t always so great with the safety side of things.”  We thanked him for his advice and that was pretty much it from him, although we did ask him to take out a smaller tree that AmeriTree hadn’t bid on. He said he’d come over after the job across the street was done, in a day or so.

July 10: we got another call from AmeriTree: “I see you’re down for the 13th, but there’s an opening tomorrow if you can accommodate them.” I told them that no, we STILL can’t accommodate them because, as I’d already explained, we had a lot of people coming to the house that day. This time she took the time to write on the estimate that it couldn’t be changed.

On July 11, we held the Pig Roast and a merry time was had by all, and there were, indeed, toasts to the impending demise of the tree. We even toasted once to the gum tree, but we were pretty drunk by then.

So Monday rolls around, the last of the guests have departed, and I’m getting ready to run an errand when the AmeriTree guys arrive at about 10:30 or so. They look at the gum tree, which is pretty accessible and shouldn’t pose a problem at all, and then we go to the back yard. The guy’s a little worried about the cedar tree, because they’re not sure about getting the pieces to the chipper. I take him into the alley to show him that big trucks, can, indeed, go back there, and he’s a little more confident about their ability to do the job without hassle.

Of course, if that actually happened, then I’d be writing a 140-character Tweet about how guys came and cut down my trees and that’d be it. Instead, I’ve got this story to tell you.

Right before I left, their lead guy said, “OK, before we get started, we’re just gonna go get lunch, all right?” Hey, what can you say, guy’s gotta eat some lunch. I don’t know why you check in and get lunch instead of lunching first, but whatever. I go on my errand, leaving Wife with the tree crew.

It was about an hour later when I got back. The gum tree was completely down already, and some of the workers were raking up the leftover branches for disposal. Wow, says I. That was quick. They’ll make short work of the cedar tree. Then Wife told me that the stumps weren’t going to be ground down that day; that was for another crew and another day that we had to arrange. I asked the crew chief if that was true, and he told me yes, that was always the case. I noted that I wished I’d known about that so we could have planned ahead; we thought everything would be done that day. So I got on the phone with AmeriTree and set up a second visit for the stumps. Nobody had an answer for me with regard to why I wasn’t told this in the first place.

So I sat in my dining room, looking out through the back door and paying my bills online. Wife sat on the small deck we have outside the dining room door, watching the guys work. In fact, she snapped the pic here shortly before they came to the back yard. They were doing a bang-up job of cutting away those lower branches and generally reducing the tree to a big stick before tackling the trunk—or trunks, as you can see: about ten feet up the trunk really split up into about a half-dozen main branches. I got wrapped up in what I was doing, which involved a more-or-less static screen, when Wife popped the door open and asked me: “Do you still have internet?”

“I think so,” I said, then I hit the F5 button to refresh. Nope, the internet had died. How did she know this had happened? That’s when I looked outside and realized that the work had stopped.

To hear Wife tell the story, one of the workers was up high in the tree, making the cuts, while another one or two guys was on the ground, pulling the tree parts this way and that with ropes as a means of guiding the pieces
down in a specific direction. One large piece, however, did a kind of pirouette at the end of the cut and, instead of falling to the left onto the grass (see the grassy area in the photo? There), it fell at about a 90-degree angle to that point, just missing the pergola but neatly hitting the two wires that are strung across my yard. One wire was the power line for the house next to ours; the other is the Comcast cable that provides my internet service. (Shut up, DSL isn’t available in this part of town, and FIOS isn’t available anywhere in Baltimore City.) The power line was pulled away from the neighbor’s house, and now hung about three feet over our yard, but was still connected; about half of the brackets that held the cable to the house had been torn out. Our cable had been torn out at BOTH ends: at the pole and at the house. So while our neighbor still had electrical service, we had no internet.

I got on the phone to AmeriTree to ask them what their protocol was for this sort of thing. She said she’d have to call the crew chief to see what was up. I went out back and asked where  he was, but nobody seemed to know at that moment. When he did turn up a minute later, I told him that the office was supposed to be getting in touch with him. This was the beginning of numerous phone calls, back-and-forthing with the crew and with the AmeriTree office, and a bunch of stuff you don’t really want to hear, but I’ll add these few tidbits:

At one point in the afternoon, around 4:00 I called AmeriTree to ask when Comcast was supposed to come out and fix the cable. She said she didn’t know; all she knew was that it would be sometime the next day and here’s the work order number if I want to call them myself. What about BGE, for the electrical wire? “Well, it’s not a high-power wire, they can probably fix it on their own…” And, in fact, they did that, putting the brackets back in and re-mounting the cable against the house. They did kind of a half-assed job of it, so the cable is no longer lying flush against the house, but they did something, I guess. They also trimmed the hell out of a tree that the cable was passing through. In addition, they took the time to trim my neighbor’s hedges for free AND, because she’d asked for the gum tree wood for her fireplace, they cut that up into smaller, more manageable pieces (still too big for a fireplace but easier to turn into fireplace-ready pieces). In the meantime, Wife is discovering a bunch of other damage they’d done to parts of her garden that we hadn’t expected to see damage on. Our cherry tree (at the far left in the photo) had a bunch of its branches broken, and the crape myrtle’s trunk had been split down the middle. The crew chief knocked $100 off the total cost as an apology and against the possibility that the crape myrtle would have to be replaced; as he’s writing the bill up he said to me, “Sometimes these guys, they want to work really fast and I have to slow them down because they don’t always do things the right way.” This statement flew directly against my next phone call to the office, which involved me being told that their crews are always concerned with doing things safely. She did not, however, have a reply when I repeated what the crew chief had told me. She did note, however, that they wouldn’t have been in business for as long as they were, with an A+ rating (from whom, she didn’t say).

Pay attention to this, AmeriTree: you don’t keep on being in business by resting on the laurels of the previous work; you keep on being in business by delighting the NEW customers you have so that they’ll come back and give you referrals.

A supervisor came out the next day, and Wife and I toured him around the property, showing him everything that had happened and some of the attitudes we bumped up against. He was (sort of) apologetic and offered to replace the crape myrtle if it, in fact, didn’t survive its injuries, and said he’d send out a second crew to fix the power line. (Coincidentally, the Comcast guy arrived at almost the same time he did, so the internet was back up before he left.) But in the end, we weren’t left with any real assurance that the next person down the line wouldn’t experience something like this, or that they held any real remorse for what had happened. So we’re pretty much in a “time will tell” loop at the moment.

Small Measures

Principal Skinner: Justice is not a frivolous thing, Simpson. It has little, if anything, to do with a disobedient whale.

The Simpsons, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much" (5/5/94)


This morning, as I stumbled down the stairs in my usual fog of grogginess, a text message came in on my phone. It was from the folks at Discover; they'd identified some unusual activity on my credit card and needed to get in touch with me. I logged into my account online and got the same message, with a few details. Apparently overnight, "I" had tried to buy over $2000 worth of stuff from Franklin Covey, along with $4 of something else I didn't recognize. 

Now, Franklin Covey has some very nice stuff, but I–and most FC fans, I think–would have a pretty hard time coming up with two thousand dollars' worth of stuff to buy. So I called Discover, as requested, and spoke to the representative in the Fraud unit. They asked for a ton of information, basically trying to establish whether I actually had the card in my hands. They then went back through the last several charges (all of which had been declined because Discover thought they were fishy) until they got to one I recognized. So all is well, I'm not responsible for the fraudulent charges, and new cards will arrive in a few days. Happy ending, but not the way you want to start the day. 

So on the way to work, I'm headed up Belair Road and approaching the turnoff for the Beltway, when a guy in a silver Mercedes minivan** comes flying in from the left lane, cuts me off and continues into the on-ramp. As it happened, there wasn't anyone ahead of us, so he just kept rocketing down the ramp and disappeared into the traffic. 

And of course it's annoying because he's rude and I nearly spilled my tea and the crappiest part about it is that there wasn't even anyone ahead of him to slow his ass down, so he pretty much got away with it and that's the worst part. You're minding your own business and following the rules of the road, and you have to be extra careful when you're driving because there are ASSHATS LIKE THIS out there on the road. 

So for the uninitiated, from the Belair Road exit on the Beltway, it's maybe a mile to the interchange with I-95 and, about another mile or two south of that, the highway splits so that motorists have two tunnels through Baltimore to choose from. It's a very busy piece of road during rush hours, but for the most part it's well-designed and seems to go smoothly, even if the volume means that you're not able to go at full speed.

Today, however, was a little different. The merge to southbound I-95 was pretty easy, but after the split for the tunnels, the traffic seemed to slow down. It was kind of an unnatural place for this sort of thing to happen, and I got worried that I'd be late to school, because I'm also aware that there is construction beyond the tunnel that tends to slow things down. Could the slowdowns actually be backing up through the tunnel and continuing another four miles? This could be bad.

In the distance, however, I saw some police lights flashing, so I figured, cool. We get past that, and things should open up. I hope. 

As I get closer to the police activity–and, sure enough, I can see at this point that the traffic is lightening up after that point–I see that it's a single marked police car, and fortunately he's not reporting on an accident; he's got a single car stopped for some infraction. 

And that car is a silver Mercedes minivan. 

This may be a good day today, you know? 


**you can call it an "SUV" all you like, it's a minivan unless it's actually spending some time off-road. And this thing ain't spending ANY time off-road. 

What’s Opera, Doc?

Josh Lyman: I'm just sayin' if you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for a beer.

Donna Moss: If you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for red lights.

The West Wing, “17 People” (4/4/01)


Nobody was buying that Butterfly was fifteen years old. Last weekend, the Lyric Opera House here in Baltimore staged a production of the opera Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. Students from our school were invited to attend one of the dress rehearsals on Wednesday, so I decided to go, taking Wee One with me since they had the space and I knew that she’d be interested.

Despite it being a dress rehearsal, the streets surrounding the Lyric were pretty full, so we had to park in a nearby garage. Naturally, the garage was charging the “event” rate rather than the hourly rate, and they were cash-only, but they were happy to hold onto my ID (and my car, of course) until I went to an ATM and came back with the money.

So the show itself was pretty cool. Instead of taking the assigned seats that were set up high enough for us to pack oxygen tanks. we opted to grab some vacant seats on one of the side balconies. We had a great view of the actors and the pit orchestra, which was (naturally) more casually dressed than one would usually see. This also put us in the position of being able to show the students the monitors mounted just below the balcony to each side of the stage, so the actors could see the conductor no matter which way they were facing. The students ran at about a 50% rate with regard to whether, in the end, the whole experience was interesting, but I look at it as an “exposure” type of event. In the end I think maybe we could have prepared them just a little bit better for the whole thing.

Wee One, on the other hand, had apparently taken some initiative and looked up the story on her own, so she had a better idea of what was going on. And, of course, she was all kinds of impressed with the actors, what with all the breath control and other dynamics. So after the show, while I circled the block looking for the ATM, we bumped into a couple of the actors and she got the opportunity to go all Fangirl over them.

In the car and on the way home. We’re headed north on Harford Road when we approach 25th Street, which is a busy intersection for that road. As it happens, we have the green light as we approach the intersection, but I also see a police cruiser coming into the intersection, with lights on and siren wailing. I braked hard, hard enough that you could feel the antilock brakes do that shuddering thing, but we stopped partway into the crosswalk.

The bad news is, the car behind us didn’t get the memo. We were stopped for a good second or so when suddenly: BANG. And now we’re all the way into the crosswalk. We’d been rear-ended.

It’s kind of weird when you get into this sort of accident, being hit from behind. You really need a moment to comprehend what’s happened. Wee One even asked me, “What happened?” and I told her that someone had hit us. I asked her if she was OK and she said she was. I told her to stay in the car and got out.

When these things happen, you also have a moment of thinking, “This isn’t going to be so bad.” Then you look at the car and you say something like “Jesus H. Christ on a Pogo Stick! Look at THAT mess!”

I snapped this just as the cop arrived.

I got out of the car and the other driver, a young lady about 25 years old, was already out of her car. She was apologetic and said that she’d hydroplaned (it was raining) and couldn’t stop her Jeep Liberty. By definition, “hydroplaning” is not what was going on here, but whatever. My car was clearly a mess and it was clearly her fault. I called 911 and they told me they’d dispatch an officer.

I got back into the car to start fishing the insurance and registration information out of the glove box. When I got out again, the officer had just arrived. Efficient! I greeted him with a cheerful “Whassup!” In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that he didn’t ask me to blow up a balloon right there. He started asking us about what had happened, and actually seemed kind of surprised that the other cruiser—the one I’d stopped for with the lights and the siren—hadn’t stopped what they were doing and turned their attention to us. Meanwhile, there were two people on the corner, who had been waiting for a bus, and offering to testify on my behalf. “Do you got a baby in that car? I seen everything! She was tailgating you, she was going too fast.” I let the officer know that we had some witnesses, but he didn’t really care since the girl had already admitted it was all on her. After a few minutes he concluded that there really wasn’t any point in leaving the cars where they were in the middle of Harford Road, and we moved the vehicles over into the parking lot of the check-cashing place on the southeast corner. I had to make two trips, since my bumper was in the middle of the road. So one was on foot, moving the bumper, and the other was moving the car itself. Miraculously, the car was capable of moving on its own. 

So while I’m in the parking lot and awaiting the paperwork, I called Wife and told her to come get the Wee One. She showed up and was suitably impressed by the damage to my car. She told me she’d take Wee One home and then come back for me, since I was still waiting for the policeman’s paperwork.

By the time she got back to the house, Wee One started complaining that her head hurt, and it was possible that she’d hit her head against the door when we were hit. Wife wanted to take her to the hospital after getting me home. I told her that I was starting to feel it too, and maybe we’d both go get looked at. When she got back to me, the police had left, the other driver had left (her car had remarkably little damage, and I’m dumbfounded that her air bags didn’t deploy. By now I’d also taken the bumper and put it into the car, in the fully-reclined passenger seat. Wife wanted me to have the car towed; I knew that it was actually drive-able (if not totally aesthetic) and she should just follow me in case it turns out not to be able to make it all the way home.

We did manage to make it home, and off we went to GBMC, where we were poked and X-Rayed and such, and both given clean bills of health and a few pain pills. In the cold light of morning...well, it doesn't look any better. Wee One’s headaches persisted for another few days but further testing showed no permanent damage. We got home around 4AM and fell directly into bed. I don’t often fall asleep that quickly.

The next day, I spent on the phone fielding phone calls to and from the insurance companies. Let me tell you something: insurance companies get a bad rap, and I’m sure some of it is deserved, but the folks I dealt with at both companies were all GREAT. Everything moved efficiently, and when I told them that they needed me to walk through the mechanics of some of the procedures, they were kind enough to simplify it for me. The biggest delays came from the fact that there was a National Holiday in the middle of all this, which delayed some of the mail involved, but that was it: the time from accident, to inspection, to the car being declared a total loss, to receiving my check was two weeks flat.

So here’s the rundown on the damage: both quarter panels were crushed. Both light assemblies had damage to them; in fact Wife told me that I had working tail lights, but the brake lights didn’t come on when I stepped on the pedal. The third, center brake light came on but you can’t see it anymore because the trunk lid is crunched upward. That trunk lid, incidentally, was there to stay. It’s moving neither up nor down from the position you see here. The bumper was knocked off (you can kind of see it through the window, to the right), and the whole assembly behind the bumper was bent downward. The rear window was smashed completely. Some of the contents of the trunk were pinched in between the floor of the trunk and the lid. In order to get what stuff I could out of the trunk, I had to flip down the back seat and reach through.

Oh, here’s a saving grace: when the car was struck, it had very little fuel left in the tank; I was going to stop and put gas in the car before I got home.

So it’s a couple of years earlier than I expected, but I now have a new (to me) car in the form of a 2013 Hyundai Sentra Hybrid. I’m still getting used to it, of course, but I’m rather liking this car. And in the meantime, it’s Goodbye, Old Paint.

Physics Lessons

Freebie: Hi, Fred. We got a little accident. Could you send a tow truck, please, to 618 Elm Street? Hold it. It’s the, uh, third floor, apartment 304.

Freebie and the Bean (1974)


…And the hits just keep on coming.

In Our Last Episode, I’d noted that, for the first time ever in my adult life, I’d actually made it onto a jury. The judge tried to get everything done today so we wouldn’t have to come back tomorrow, but no such luck. What that meant, was a lot of hassle at my school.

The reason it’s a hassle for school is because I’d scheduled IEP meetings for several of the students on my caseload. If I’m not there, then there’s nobody to keep things running and such, and the data entry is going to be less-than-awesome, and a few other headaches. So after they let us go for the day, around 4:15PM, I decided to head over to my school, let my principal know what was up, and do some advance prep to make it easier for the team to get stuff done, or at least into a decent place for me to finish it all off.

My school is typically a 10 minute drive from the courthouse area, but we’re talking A) downtown Baltimore, B) close to rush hour, C) within an hour of the Orioles starting a playoff game. It took me 40 minutes, no exaggeration, to cover that one-mile course. Maybe longer; it was after 5 by the time I got into the school. The principal wasn’t happy to hear the news (of course), but she was glad I’d come in to help set things up.

Around 8:00, I finally left the building and headed home. My plan was to take I-95 part of the way, adhering to the speed limit because, after all, I was still on the donut spare.

Here’s where we have to go to the map:

It's possible that when I pulled over, I considered jumping onto Russell Street.

See that road running through the middle of the picture? That’s I-395, the spur that runs between the Downtown area and I-95. The red arrow is where I hit the pothole, or more accurately, the shoddily-filled series of potholes. The orange arrow (because, Orioles) is where I stopped the car. Those arrows are no more than a couple of hundred feet apart.

So I called the Triple-A guys via an app on my phone, and they called me back in a couple of minutes. It took a little explaining to get them to understand exactly where I was, but finally he got it and said he’d be right over. Sure enough, he was there within a few minutes. That was the guy with the AAA Service vehicle; there wasn’t a lot he was going to be able to do for me; this car needed a tow. So he got the tow truck dispatched.

In the meantime, I’m working my phone to see if a friend of mine, who used to work in a garage not far from my school, would contact said garage and let them know I’m bringing my car over. No problem, he says. Then a second call to Wife, to let her know where she’s picking me up. Tow truck shows up, car gets taken to the garage without extra fees (being on that on-ramp kind of complicated the distance, so AAA showed a little mercy in that respect: as the crow flies, it was no more than a mile to the garage. Because the tow truck couldn’t just do a U-turn, it was maybe a six-mile circle we were driving in). Total time from breakdown to Wife picking me up: about an hour. All is reasonably well. Except for the whole Nearly Dying Last Night thing combined with two flats within a 25-hour span.

OK, so here’s the Physics Lesson:

If you look at that orange arrow, you’ll see that my car was situated almost exactly between Orioles Park at Camden Yards (at the top of the picture) and M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens play. I’m also on an elevated highway, maybe 30-40 feet up over Russell Street. The Orioles were playing the Detroit Tigers tonight in the first game of the Division series, and the Orioles were doing quite the fine job this evening (final score: 12—3). So while I was waiting for the AAA guy, I turned on the car’s radio and tuned in the game. Then, just for the giggles, I opened my car window to see if I could hear the sounds from the stadium. Turns out I could, but I was hearing the stadium AFTER I heard it on the radio! The ball would get hit, the crowd would roar on the radio, and right after that I’d hear their hollering through the car window. How could this wizardry be?

Here’s how:

I estimate the distance between the stadium and my car to be roughly 400 feet. That means it takes, at 1,122 feet/second, about 1/3-second for a sound from the stadium to reach the car. However, when the sound hits the announcer’s microphone, it’s speed-of-light almost the rest of the way. Into the mic, through the wire, to the transmitter (five miles away), out through the radio waves and into my car’s radio (five miles back), where it’s converted back to sound for the last two feet. But it’s all happening at 186,282 MILES/second.

It’s the same reason you see the fireworks before you hear them. Physics, boy.

Good To Know

Stan: We buried you. There was a coffin, a gravestone…the whole thing.
Chuck Noland: I had a coffin?
[Stan nods]
Chuck Noland: Well, what was in it?

Castaway (2000)


When you’re dealing with closing out the various business bits of someone who’s died, you start to run across a few weird details.

For example: my grandmother had a habit of paying “bills” that didn’t need to be paid, so my brother and I were constantly depositing checks that were based on refunds of checks she’d sent out to settle debts that didn’t exist. So for instance, she’d go to the doctor and pay the co-pay, then an “Explanation of Benefits” statement would come from Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield, spelling out the total costs and how much was paid by Medicaid, how much by Empire and how much was the patient’s responsibility. She’d see that bottom line and send a check to Empire, which would promptly issue a refund. So one of the projects we’ve been involved with this past month was figuring out just how much money my grandmother genuinely owed to people. It makes for a lot of interesting phone calls, let me tell you.

Yesterday I got a piece of mail from the funeral home that took care of my grandmother. I thought it was the copies of her death certificate, since they haven’t arrived yet and the envelope was a little bit on the thick side, but it turned out not to be the case. Inside was another envelope, marked LIMITED WARRANTY CERTIFICATE.

Now, because the funeral home is on the same property as the cemetery, it crossed my mind that perhaps this is the warranty for the little brass plate that goes on the grave marker. Most of the marker was already in place, since my grandparents had adjoining plots going on, but there was still a space that needed to be bolted on for my grandmother’s year of death. On the other hand, I’d received no such warranty for the plate on my mother’s grave, which is in the same cemetery. Hey, here’s an idea! Why not open the folder and see what it’s about?

In Your Choice of Attractive ColorsTurns out that what I have is the Limited Warranty Certificate for a Batesville NGS Steel Casket. It warranties, among other things, that “this Casket is free from defects in material and workmanship” and that “Batesville will, within ten days of receipt of this notice to it, replace this Casket with one of equal or greater value if, at any time prior to the placement of this Casket in an initial place of interment, it is found to be defective in materials or workmanship…” (emphasis is mine).

So…more than ten days after my grandmother is buried, I get the reassurance that if I discover a problem with the casket—pardon me, Casket—prior to her burial, then I can get a replacement? Thanks, Batesville!

Now, am I covered for spraining my eyeballs because I’ve rolled them so hard?

Off We Go Into the…Wait, Never Mind.

B.J.: I got as far as Guam and all flights are canceled, nothing going in or out. I’m sitting there in this crummy officers club, and this guy comes up to me, and says, "You Hunnicutt the doctor?" Now, I didn’t like the sound of that, so I said, "No, not me, pal, I’m Hunnicutt the chaplain." He says, "Well, chaplain, you’d better start praying for a miracle, because you’re going back to Korea to do surgery."

M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (2/28/83)


It’s been a tumultuous year since last June, when my mother died.

Mom died just a few weeks after her brother, under incredibly similar circumstances despite the fact that my uncle had been in very poor health for many years and she was in pretty good shape. The thing that really complicated matters was that my grandmother was still alive.

Ponder that for a moment: she outlived both of her children, and lost them within weeks of one another.

So my mother was a pretty shrewd planner, and (perhaps presciently) set up a trust fund for us to maintain the house for my grandmother just in case she predeceased her mother.

That happened six months before she died.

I promise, there won’t be a lot of single-sentence paragraphs after this one.

So my mom died on June 8, 2013, and I took over the money aspects of maintaining the house. One of my brothers, who lives nearby, took care of some of the maintenance items. His wife helped with keeping the house clean and keeping the medication straight. My nephew stayed in the house with my grandmother and generally helped out with the day-to-day stuff. We hired in an aide service and in-home medical attention. It was definitely a group effort.

With Daughter, 1991I came down to visit in October, and made sure things were going okay, cleaned out a few closets, and so forth, and headed back home. At that point my grandmother was in good health, in a pretty reasonable state of mind, and in a fairly good mood. I’d been told that she did have moments of depression, but who would hold that against her? Everyone said she was in pretty good shape, considering she was going to be 91 in a few weeks.

I suppose that’s what made it a bit of a surprise when I went down a few weeks ago. My brother tried to convey it but while I knew it intellectually, seeing it was another matter. There had been some bouts of confusion and clearly she couldn’t be left alone anymore. They brought her into their house and essentially converted their living room into her…well, most of her universe. There was a hospital bed just a few feet beyond the front door; next to that was an oxygen generator that she used when she went to sleep. A powered recliner chair sat a few feet from that. In between those was a portable commode chair. At the Hard Rock Casino a few weeks ago. And every day there was the project of moving her from the bed to the commode, then to the recliner chair. And at the end of the day the process reversed. There was the talking about, or to, people who weren’t there. There were the worries that the only reason I’d come down was to move her into a nursing home. When we took her out somewhere one afternoon for a couple of hours, she enjoyed the time outside, but it also took a LOT out of her and she was weaker than ever for at least a whole day. The person I’d known all my life was gone.

When it was time for me to leave Florida because of work and social commitments, she didn’t want me to leave. I promised that I was coming back in about two weeks. “Two weeks” would have meant roughly the end of this week.

Last night, my brother called during dinner. He said that the nurses were on-hand, that she hadn’t gotten out of bed at all that day, that they were saying that the end could come at pretty much any time, now. Could be minutes, could be a couple of days. I started making plans to fly down the next day. While I was making the reservation with the airline, he called back and said it was over.

That’s it; all the generations ahead of mine are gone now.

This morning I had to go to work for a couple of hours; the first thing I had to do was tell my principal what had happened, and that she wasn’t going to see me for another week. My next project involved setting up a meeting of my Special Ed team because a parent asked for a meeting. That didn’t quite go as planned, because a change to the software we use for the meetings wasn’t getting along with my browsers. I finally managed to get it done and I got out of there.

When I got home, I only had to pack for a couple of days’ worth of stuff because Wife would be following me down a day or two later. So I threw some clothes into a bag, along with some paperwork I figured I’d need while I was there. I got into this weird head space where I’d think I was done, then I’d think of something else I needed and go running for that.

My brother called and said the funeral home we were sure my grandmother had pre-arranged with had no record of a transaction with her. This seemed peculiar to everyone, as we remembered her doing it during my stepfather’s funeral a couple of years ago. Plus, a couple of us had a memory of seeing some materials from them a few months earlier. Mysterious! However, I also knew that this particular funeral home was the second place she’d pre-arranged her services; back in 1984 she’d pre-paid for services at another funeral home. I had that paperwork around the house somewhere because I remembered taking it home with me. Searching in the places I was sure I’d had it proved fruitless, however. I was a little worried that I’d be down there without it, but what are the odds that TWO places can’t find paperwork?

Not pictured: Me and a rapidly-growing line. My mother in law was designated to take me to the airport. She was anxious to go, perhaps to beat the weather, so we wound up leaving early, and I got to the airport at 4:30 for a 7:15 flight. (I know, you’re supposed to get in early nowadays; in the pre-9/11 days I’d get to the airport about thirty minutes before departure, usually because I only had a carry-on anyway. Sitting there waiting to board is such a drag.) I got in the Express Bag Drop-Off line, which had about eight stations and sixteen kiosks, staffed by two people. And one of those people wasn’t even running both of the kiosks at her station. So the line took forever.

Per Southwest procedure, when I got to the front of th
e line, I dutifully scanned by boarding pass. The screen flickered and told me: THIS FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELLED. There’s a lot of bad weather going on out there, and my flight was one of many that was affected by it. The attendant looked at the rosters she had and determined that there were no openings at all for the evening, but I could take the plane that’s leaving at 6:15 in the morning. I wasn’t happy, but Southwest doesn’t control the weather. I let her book the flight, and then started texting Wife to come get me.

So as I write this I’m still a few hours away from getting down to Florida and figuring out which funeral home we’ll be using, and all the other things that go into planning such events, and I’m pretty irritated that I’m not there already and getting some rest for the busy day I’ll be having tomorrow, but there is a bright side to all this: I managed to find the 1984 funeral paperwork after I got back home. Go figure.

Ring My Bell

Sue Sylvester: Sandy, how is it that you manage to sneak into this school without setting off all of the fire alarms?

Glee, “A Night of Neglect” (4/19/11)


I’ve been working in a new school this year, and it’s been a ton of effort on my part.

My office looked approximately like this when I started. The short version is, my predecessor either wasn’t very good at her job, or she mentally checked out sometime around April. Or, perhaps (and more likely) both. Consequently I walked in on both a literal and figurative mess. The office consists of four rooms: a larger anteroom with a conference table surrounded by file cabinets. This is where the students’ Special Ed meetings took place; the file cabinets were filled with records going back to at least 2006. Atop the cabinets were cases of files from before 2006, awaiting destruction. Then there is an office which was commandeered by the Assistant Principal; I don’t know what it was used for last year. The other two rooms were taken up by my predecessor and her assistant. They had separate rooms to work in. Spacious! Except for the fact that all three of the rooms given over to my department were a huge mess. I was clearly going to be working late for several weeks. This doesn’t really bother me; I’m more productive between 3:00 and 5:00 PM than I am the whole rest of the day. And the other upside is that Wee One is a cheerleader in her high school now, so her practices wrap up just a short time after I’m officially booted out of the building by the custodians.

Most schools have two custodial shifts. The first one comes in early, opens the building, makes some rounds, etc. and just ensures that the place is ready to go when everyone else arrives. Then there’s another shift that starts a couple of hours later and is usually responsible for some cleanup stuff that can only be done when nobody else is in the building. The two shifts have a lot of overlap but that’s usually how they go. There are variations of this, of course, but that’s the basic model.

These were the custodians in my high school when I was a student. It was a big building. In my school, the second shift usually ends around 6 PM. Sometimes it’s earlier, like around 5:30, and sometimes a little bit later but not usually by much. When the custodian is ready to go, he gets on the PA system and says, “Attention teachers: the building is now closed.” Click. End of announcement. That’s pretty much my five-minute warning to get my act together and get out. Usually I’m on a bit of a roll at that point but that’s the way the ball bounces. In this respect I’d be happier in a building that closes at 8:00. More often than not, I’m the only person left in the building, although a couple of times I’ve found myself leaving with another teacher.

So tonight I found myself on a bit of a hot streak. I was preparing mailings to go home to parents and I was printing notices on one printer, printing cover letters on another, loading the printer with envelopes and printing the addresses directly on those…I was on a roll, and it was going to be cut short, I just knew it. At some point that announcement was going to happen, and I was going to have to stop, dammit. I started prioritizing the pieces so that the most important ones would be done first.

And then…a little while later…I was done. Done! I’d done them all! I can go home and it’s only…


7 o clock

…oh, that can’t be right. Unless maybe the custodian is working late tonight. I looked through the anteroom out into the hallway and realized Hey, that hall’s pretty dark. This might be a problem. So I went downstairs to the first floor and located the school’s alarm panel.

Sure enough, the system was armed. I’d been locked into the building and I couldn’t leave without setting off the alarm.

Fortunately, I’m not the panicky type. I got on the phone and called the School Police. (Yes, Baltimore City Schools has its own police force.)

“School Police Dispatch, this is ______.”

“Good evening, _________, this is Claude at School #NNN. How are you this evening?”

“Oh, I’m fine, sir. How are you?”

(Yes, we really did exchange pleasantries first.)

“I’m well, but I have a problem. It appears that the custodian has locked me in the building and set the alarm. I can’t get out.”

“Oh, my!” she said. “What number are you calling from?” I gave her the number. She then said, “Someone will get to you.”

I asked, “OK, should I go to the lobby of the building then?”

She said, “If you want,” then thought better of her answer and said, “You should stay by the phone.” We hung up and I started packing my stuff.

A few minutes later, it occurred to me that, if the phone should ring, I won’t hear it. The phone in my office doesn’t ring unless a call is being transferred to me. I called the School Police again.

“Hi, it’s Claude, the guy in School #NNN? It just occurred to me that—” the officer who answered the phone immediately handed me off to someone else. For whatever reason I had to explain my predicament again. This time he said “OK, someone’s enroute, they should be there in a couple of minutes.”

“OK,” I said, “I’ll be in the building’s lobby.”

My school has a lobby that can be closed off from the rest of the building by a pair of double doors. This way, you can enter the building and turn right, into the Gym, or left, into the Auditorium, and not enter any other part of the school. The doors are typically open at all hours unless there’s an after-school event in one of those spaces. I went back to the first floor, with my stuff in my hands, and walked past the alarm panel and through the doorway for the double doors.


Uh-oh. I’d forgotten about the possibility of there being motion sensors in the entryway. I’d set off the alarm, and now the panel was waiting for me to enter the code to clear it, which I didn’t know, of course. Every ten seconds the panel would change, telling me how much time I had left to enter the code. You know, when you’re just staring at the panel and waiting for all hell to break loose, sixty seconds can be a long time.

Or maybe this happened. At the end of the minute, I heard a warbling tone, but it wasn’t especially loud. Funny, I thought. I guess the alarm horns are only on the outside of the building. It took me a minute to realize that the sound was actually coming from the PA speakers overhead. For whatever reason, the alarm rang very softly through the PA system. Well, at least I’d called before I tripped the alarm.

Several minutes went by, and still no sign of the School Police. I called them a third time. “Look, I guess there’s a motion sensor down here because I don’t know if you’re aware of this—and judging by the response, you’re NOT—I’ve already tripped the alarm. Can I just leave the building anyway?”

The School Police officer is at the building,  I was told. Just sit tight.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard the sounds of a key in the front door. My hero! I told him what had happened and he cleared the alarm, then re-set it. Then we both had to beat it out of there. How this will play with my principal in the morning, I have no idea. Stay tuned.