Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Rookie

Life in the newsroom has been different every day I've been there. Since I've only been there three days, it probably shouldn't be a surprise.

What has been a surprise is how quickly I've been thrown into things. The stories I've done haven't been hard, breaking news, and I'm glad. I'm definitely not ready for that. But I had the centerpiece story in the local section (B1, for you newspaper people) on my first two attempts. I left my story in a bit of a mess on Tuesday, but the editor pulled it all together. I hated ditching it, but I had to take my mom to the eye doctor in the middle of an ice storm. (They can't do anything for her; she has macular degeneration, and it's gone too long. She was disappointed, as you might imagine.) It's hard only being in the office a short time. So many people I wanted to talk to were unavailable until after I left or only moments before I had to go, so I sort of pieced together what I could in a wild frenzy. It was ugly. I hadn't seen the photos or written my cutlines or sidebar. Geez. They ended up not doing a sidebar. Small wonder.

Today my editor wanted me to find the winners of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association's 2007 Better Newspaper Contest. Yesterday's intern tried and failed to get the list. The WNA doesn't release the names of the winners until after the award ceremony, which is Friday. Perhaps yesterday's intern just didn't know who to call. I did. I called Heidi. Heidi just had to talk to Bonnie and the list was mine. Mwahahahaha.

Heidi works at the WNA and happens to be one of my favorite people in the world. Hi, Heidi! She's a much better journalist than I am. I hope she gets a fabulous job at a rockin' newspaper after she gets out of school. Or before she gets out of school. Heidi had her name called at the WNA awards banquet last year and the year before.

My name might be called this year, but I can't really say until after the award ceremony Friday. My newspaper might just have won an award or two, as well, but I really can't say until after the award ceremony Friday.

I'm still figuring out names and personalities in the newsroom. Today I sat between George and Anita and kitty corner from Patricia and Doug. Whenever I think of Laurie's Doug, I always get his last name wrong because I'm thinking of the Doug I sat by today. (They're both newspaper people named Doug. I can be thick, OK?) The Doug I sat by today, Doug Erickson, did a fantastic special section last year about a terminally ill woman who wanted to die her way. It was the best piece I read in the paper last year. It was pretty cool to put a face with that article.

George and Patricia are kind of boisterous. Patricia brings fattening treats every day. Doug is quiet, so is Ken. Ken is so neat that he doesn't even have a trash can under his desk like everyone else. Dean is so quiet, I forget he is there. Karen and Anita come and go a lot. I like that. I can't sit still, either. Bill wanders around smiling, rarely speaking and rarely spoken to. Odd. He's one of my favorite writers at the paper, but he seems fairly well ignored by his coworkers. I wonder if he's a dick. He spoke to my feature writing class last year. He seemed like a fine guy. Amy (not me) knows everything. Beth is soft-spoken and busy and has vulture on desk. Its name is not Damien Day. Phil is tall and nice. Ron was incredibly welcoming. I'd love his job. Those are the ones I see the most. There are others, of course.

Everyone has been very willing to help. Most seem genuinely interested in me and in helping me get going. George, who used to be my second-favorite columnist until he got his column taken away, said I'm doing a good job and that I have a nice rhythm to my writing. Golly.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

All the cheese she can eat

Our rat Lilly died this morning. I thought her days were coming to an end. She was old. She hadn't been eating the last couple of days, and when we took her out to let her run, she didn't want to. She just sniffed and snuggled against us. I looked in her cage this morning, and things didn't look quite right. When I checked again an hour later, she was splayed out, breathless, eyes open. Poor girl.

The kids were off school, sort of, and thankfully, so we did a quickie funeral. The weather had been warm, but we knew severe nastiness was coming. I wanted to get the rat planted before the ground froze.

She was such a sweet-hearted, energetic thing. Always filthy. Ate like a pig, too. We buried her in the day lilies.

Now we're down to one rat, one fish, and two rabbits. My mother grudgingly said she'd take the rabbits while we're out of town, but she won't let them out to run around. I think we'll see if the neighbor girls will come down and play with them here instead.

Fat Tuesday

I weighed myself twice. These are the kinder numbers: 158.0, 35.1 percent body fat

So I'm down since last week, but my weight fluctuates so much that a one-week loss won't mean anything until I can see it's a trend. I haven't increased my activity at all, but I have eaten a little less. Not much less. But a little, and every little bit helps.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Holy Stalactites, Batman!

As many of you know, I like to go places. I'm not even fussy. If I've never been there, I'm pretty up for going.

When Kelsey came home from her first Girl Scout meeting in the fall, she was nearly jumping up and down with anticipation of having a sleepover in a cave in January. Yea!

I thought maybe she'd gotten some facts wrong. A sleepover? Is it really a cave? In JANUARY?! Don't they know it's cold in January?

Oh, yes, it's a sleepover. They go all the time. It's a huge cave, and you can go anywhere you can fit, and it's the same temperature all year long, 55 degrees (that's about 13 Celsius). And you can go sledding outside. It's going to be so awesome! Says Kelsey.

I'm not afraid of small spaces or the dark. But I like to be warm. I say it every day. I like to be warm. In January, 55 sounds balmy, but the thought of 55 and no warmer sounds chilly. Also, school starts back up in January.

I just finished my first week of school and the first day of my internship. Leading up to this weekend, I fretted. I'm taking a class that's got loads of reading. I'm taking a writing-intensive reporting class. I still work at my little paper. I will be too busy to spend a weekend camping (freezing) in a cave.

Eric said he would go if I were too busy. He's a kind man. But there's just no way. He is somewhat claustrophobic and has an inflammatory bowel disease. No one wants to trot up the hill in the cold, dark night to use the can.

As it happened, I got my books ahead of time, guessed right which one my professor would use first, and am weeks ahead in the reading. The writing-intensive part of my writing-intensive class hasn't started yet. I only have one story to write for the paper (not the internship). I was in great shape scholastically. Eric wouldn't have to rip his way to the pot all night after all.

So yesterday we packed our stuff (We forgot Kelsey's snow pants, and I didn't bother with toiletries – we could stink until we got home. We do.), gassed up the car, and set off for Eagle Cave. The directions said it was a two-hour drive. I knew it was shorter than that. My brother and his family have a little cottage along the Wisconsin River not far from there.

The land in that area is gorgeous. White farm fields, white trees, white hills and valleys. We saw a huge flock of turkeys, big black blobs against the white of the snow. The river was frozen over in most places, but where it was water, steam rose up and coated the surrounding trees in ice crystals.

Kelsey was getting nervous. She had been out-of-her-mind excited about this trip, but she is a stresser, a worrier, a what-iffer. Her stomach was hurting. Her head was hurting. She was hungry. We stopped for some french fries and frozen custard along the way, as if that would help an upset stomach, used a warm bathroom, and she felt better.

Ah, but in Wisconsin, they say there are two seasons: winter and road construction. Winter has been more serious about asserting itself this year, and the crew must not have finished before it got unworkable. One of the roads was closed.

That was it. The dam broke, and Kelsey started crying. She didn't think we'd be able to get there. I just followed the detour and called Eric at home to double-check on the Internet that the road to the cave was open. As he found it, we did, too, and we turned onto the narrow, snow-packed road, happy to be arriving.

We pulled up a steep hill, and I wondered if we'd make it back down without sliding into the ditch. Around a corner, and there was the parking lot. I got the last space. The snow was deep, and my car is little.

We got out and headed toward the trading post. Teenage boys were wandering the grounds. I hoped they worked there and weren't indicative of what we would look like after we'd gone inside. They were dripping, steaming, and coated with mother earth. There was scarcely a square inch on their clothes that wasn't the color of yellow-brown construction sand. Gross.

The woman who organizes all this stuff every year, Pat, whom I hold a grudge against for a long-past wrong, stood by the trading post with her clipboard in hand, waiting for people to show up. It was cold. There were a few more from our group who were just arriving, so we were going to wait for everyone. It really was cold. I figured I'd just freeze all weekend. Kelsey whined. And it was dirty. And sort of smelly. I said we'd wait inside the trading post for the others.

Eew. Imagine the seediest country bar you've ever made the mistake of entering. Grime, noise, pool tables, arcade games, sweat, plaid, old dog. Just no bar, no alcohol, no swearing drunks. We weren't in there long when Pat came to get us.

And down the hill we went to see the cave and plot our sleeping arrangements. We walked through a large door and entered a huge open area in the cave. The floor in that spot was concrete, and it was half an inch deep in mud and water. A huge group was camped there. What a horrid spot to have to camp, right by the door. And, of course, they were filthy.

My glasses fogged up immediately, and Pat waited while eyes and glasses adjusted to the warm damp, then we were off.

Pat said our sleeping area was in the warmest, driest part of the cave. It's also the farthest from the door. She said it's worth the walk. The walk took us past about 140 mud-caked people and their mud-caked equipment. Kids were shouting and running and scrambling to fit on rocks and under rocks and through holes. They wore headlamps and carried flashlights and looked absolutely delighted to be exploring a dripping, sulfur-smelling mud pit.

For whatever reason, I kept trying to avoid brushing against the walls of the cave. I wanted to stay clean. That's not very fun.

We got to our sleeping area. There are so many turns and paths and levels, I wondered if I'd ever remember how to get there. Some older girls had staked out a spot in a lower level. They had their things set up in a long line and were congregating in little groups. Some were drawing on a whiteboard they'd brought. Others were scuttling from one crevice to the next, reveling in exploring their home for a day.

Kelsey and I picked a spot next to a giant stalagmite. It was pretty flat and looked as dry as we could hope for. We took a quick peek around our area then headed to the car to bring in enough stuff to stake our claim. Kelsey wanted to lay everything out right then, but I wouldn't let her. It would be completely wet by the time we went to bed, and then there would be no way I'd get to be warm. We laid out our tarp and folded part of it over our backpacks. That would be sufficient. Then we started exploring.

I got hot pretty fast. I was still wearing my winter stuff. Kelsey began shedding, too. I had a hard time seeing where I was going. My hair kept falling into my face. I put my hat on to hold it down, then left it on until this morning when I got home.

Soon, we were covered, too. I tried to stay sort of clean. Kelsey didn't care. We brought lots of clothes to change into for when we got too wet and dirty. Good thing.

Kelsey loved the textures on the ceiling. Poky, swirly. She wanted to slide down every hole to see where it would take her. She squeezed through tunnels and climbed on top of rocks and slide under rocks and trekked up and down and all around that cave. Some of the kids her age weren't as adventurous as she was, so she hung out with the 6th graders who were camped below our stalagmite.

There were bats in a high-ceilinged part of the cave. They slept as we pointed and took pictures. Kelsey was thrilled. She'd been hoping to see bats.

Her only meltdown came as we waited our turn to eat. Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and bread. She was worried they would make her take the chicken. She also is no fan of mashed potatoes or corn. She doesn't really like potatoes at all other than baked or french fries. She's much more of a spinach and broccoli girl.

When it was our turn and neither of us wanted chicken or gravy, the woman with the ladle asked if we were vegetarian. She offered us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese to go with our bread. Kelsey was happy again. I bought her a hot chocolate, too, which is like heroin as far as that kid is concerned.

We had a little more exploring, spent some time by the bonfire, then brought the rest of our stuff down to make our bed. Kelsey was pretty wiped. As soon as I pulled the cord on her mummy bag, she was out.

I was not.

I began to wonder if I would be able to say I'd slept in a cave. Maybe the best I could hope for would be to say, "I stayed overnight in a cave."

The big burly man with the boy scouts next to us snored. All night. None of these dainty, city-boy snores, either. Dude was a lumberjack snorer. Soon there was a chorus of snores. Little girl snores and congested mom snores oozed their way around the turns of the ancient riverbed that was the cave.

There was the boy scout who hadn't covered his stuff, and it was soaked. He had only brought a slumber bag, not a real sleeping bag. He was wet and freezing. He couldn't sleep. But he could squirm under a tarp. And he did for a few hours. And he could cry.

There were those who coughed. And coughed. And coughed.

There were the kids talking in their sleep.

The only people who were quiet, I think, were the ones like me, who lay awake, listening to the dripping ceiling, the snores, the coughs, the dreams of those asleep.

My head kept getting dripped on, so I kept sliding down a little. It didn't matter. The drips followed me. Kelsey got a drip right on her nose, and it startled her. She started coughing and spitting and wiping her face. She called out for me, but she was asleep.

I think I finally fell asleep around 3:30. I woke up a couple of times, then just before 6 I was up for good. Kelsey woke up shortly after I did. She said she slept great.

People were waking up and starting to pack their gear. About 6:30, I started packing us up, too. I let Kelsey stay in her sleeping bag, and I took a load to the car. Then we packed us up the rest of the way, carried it all out, and waited our turn for pancakes. We got there early, so they fed us early. They don't usually, but it wasn't crowded. Kelsey enjoyed her last moments at the cave with her friends. She can't wait to go back.

I think I can. I think a lot of other parents can, too.

Going there would be fun for a couple of hours. I don't need to sleep there for the full experience. But I suppose the cave owners wouldn't make any money that way.

Anyway, the drive home was easy and pleasant. Just past the little berg of Gotham – ain't it a stitch? Gotham? We'd just been in a bat cave? Ha! – Kelsey started to squirm. She said, "My butt! I really have to poop." I laughed and found her a gas station down the road a piece.

I'm glad to be back home. I had a nap and some lunch, and now, having written the world's longest blog post, I have to start on my work. Kelsey has a friend over. She told her the cave was "SO AWESOME!" I'm glad she had fun.

Friday, January 25, 2008

On the job

Oh, my.

Today was my first day at the paper. Ah, they were happy to see me. I could tell because assistant city editor Beth smiled and said, "Amy, we're happy to see you."

They sent me off to the Madison Boat Show for a story. So I talked to boat show attendees about how the economy will affect their decision to buy a boat or use the boat they already have.

I came back, and old-timer and Madison icon George Hesselberg said, "Knapp, you're back already?"

I felt a little overwhelmed.

I asked George how to turn on the computer.

After some fumbling with unfamiliar software, I got my name and half a sentence written. Then the night editor came over to my desk, which was actually his desk. Nothing like displacing your editor. Anyway, he handed me a photo and said that was the pic to go with the story I was writing. I had to write the cutline. The photographer had already written one, but I had to make it my own, he said.

"We really want you to take ownership of the story, and that includes writing the cutline."

God. An unexpected pressure.

He went on about making the photo, headline, cutline and lead one package that gets the readers to read the whole story.

It's weird for me to write in a huge room with people all around me doing amazing work.

I wanted my first story to be good, but it felt a little cheesy. Writing it made me realize all the details I didn't write down. I had plenty of quotes, but not much about the environment.

Anyway, I finished, then Ken, the night city editor and cutline requirer, said he'd look it over. I should "take a breather."

As if.

He made some changes, suggested some changes, and asked for more changes. I thought his changes and suggestions were good ones. So I went back. The cutline I wrote was not what he had in mind. The one he had in mind didn't really fit my story, so that whole package idea was out the window. But it got done. He sent it off to wherever stories get sent after desk editors are sufficiently satisfied.

Then he said, "This story will be the centerpiece for tomorrow's local section."

Holy crap. Then I really, really wished I had done better on it.

I'm glad my first day is over. I was so nervous. I sat in my class earlier in the day just about ready to hurl. I think you could see my belly shaking in these nasty, quaking, bubbling, turbulent waves from across the room.

Anyway, deep breath. Inhale, exhale.

When I worked at The Clarion, my adviser made me stop using big, book-learnin' words. It appears at the WSJ (not that one) I'll be able to resurrect some of my fading vocabulary.

Tomorrow I sleep in a cave.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Overheard as Kelsey and her friends Hugh and Emily try to figure out what and where to play:

"It's five! It's not cold. It's a lot warmer than yesterday."

I am staying next to the fireplace, thank you very much.

(5 degrees Fahrenheit is -15 degrees Celsius.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fat Tuesday

OK. I've been crabbing about my weight and my lethargic body and soul. And everyone has been so nice telling me I look great. Thanks! I really do appreciate it. But I need to get in better shape. I just feel icky. Here is the damage:

158.8 pounds, 36.6 percent body fat.

When I got married, I weighed 122 and had 20 percent body fat. I could do push-ups as well as any man and kick anyone in the head, even if they were standing next to me.

Even then, my thighs had dimples and rubbed together, and my belly stuck out farther than my boobs. That hasn't changed.

It sucks to weigh more than my dad did. Mostly it sucks not to be able to kick people in the head anymore.

Well, OK, I couldn't kick everyone in the head. The largest person around was 6'7" and I got him good more than once. So, over 6'7" I don't actually know.

And I suppose I couldn't do push-ups as well as, say, professional football players. But I held my own against the men, and they knew it. I always tried to be faster than at least one man I was training with.

The coolest thing was that I could scare great big men who outweighed me by 150 pounds. I think I only scare my kids now, when I'm on a cleaning frenzy, which is rare.

So, from now on, I'll post my weight and body fat every Tuesday. Maybe it will help inspire me to stop eating so damn much and get off my extra-large, oh-so-squooshy buns. Kelsey likes me better squooshy, she says.

Monday, January 21, 2008

To hell with the Packers, let's talk about me

Do I not look smashing? I thought so, too. (That white splotch is on the camera lens, not my fancy new clothes.) I bought three ensembles to try on for my family. Kelsey liked the blue the best, Eric liked the white the best, Kayleigh liked the red the best. The color choices were not intentionally patriotic. I got a new pair of dress pants because the ones I have, which I loved, are pathetically, sickeningly small on me now. I don't dress up often, and I hate shopping. To find three things I liked was miraculous. Anyway, we decided on red, which matched my glasses and my skin, and which might be a little risky for an interview.

What interview? Oh, right.

I interviewed for an internship (I feel so young saying that) at the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison's biggest newspaper.

So, I got the job. I'll be working on the city desk. It pays a whopping $25 a week, but the opportunity to work with an editor at a large (for me, anyway) daily is invaluable. I hope I can come up with some good story ideas! And I hope I don't stuff envelopes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cleaning House

I cleaned the stove today. No, I'm not coming down with something. I even wore gloves to keep my fingers from getting torn up.

My house is cluttered. I'm trying to think up how to make things fit better. Maybe move the piano into the dining room and get rid of the dining table. If we do things well, we don't need it. We could use the computer table to eat dinner on. Although that's a little weird. Usually we eat at the breakfast bar, which I hate because it's too small and it means the dining room is too cluttered to use.

I've been trying to clear crap off my computer, too. I found this lovely while cleaning. It's a stitch.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Food Fight

I'm writing an article about a food fight at the high school. This is news? Gimme a break. I'm embarrassed to even call kids and parents and talk to them. How ridiculous.

Speaking of food, I seem to be losing this fight. Even my underwear is too small now. I bought all my bras over 20 pounds ago. Ouch. What is my problem? Do I have an eating disorder? A bad habit? An oral fixation? (Don't answer that one.) I hate having so little control of how much food I pack into my ever-expanding belly. In the past, I've only lost weight by drastically reducing how much I ate, like to 1000 calories a day, and drastically increasing how much I exercise, like to 1000 calories a day. I hurt so much now, though, it's hard to exercise. I still haven't recovered from the last time I tried, in December, and all I did was walk on the treadmill for 40 minutes at a 1 percent incline at 3.3 MPH.

I don't want to face a lazy, flabby future. I've got that as my present. I'm too young to be in this shape.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Creaming emo

Last year, at The Clarion, Kari, Lauri and I were screwing around about 5 minutes before the deadline for submission to the Yahara Journal, MATC's student fine arts publication.

"Let's write a poem, the three of us, right now," I said.

Lauri and Kari looked at me with their usual mix of skepticism and amusement. I really am hopeless sometimes. But I wouldn't be deterred.

"Come on, let's write one. One line each. We can do it," I assured them.

"What, now?" "Huh?" "What?"



"OK, I'll start. Here. I'll write a line, then you each add one. It doesn't have to make sense," I said. "Let's see if we can do one in less than 30 seconds. Here: My coffee is black today."

Boy, they looked at me funny, but Kari was quick: "As black as my soul."

Our heads turned to Lauri.

"So I added cream." She said it just like Helen Hunt on "Mad About You," then she laughed her loud, hoarse, chemically treated Lauri laugh, a laugh well-known for its ability to carry several miles and peel paint the entire distance.

And, here it is, published in a 'zine. It didn't make the cut for paper publication. That would have been too cool, our quickie poem. What a funny thing to find today while I was looking for something else.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Same time next year

Taking down the Christmas tree sucks. It's such a desolate, lonely job. We tend to put it off. Last year, our upstairs tree stayed up nearly until Easter. We joked most sacrilegiously that it was a birth through death thing, and weren't we holier than thou? We weren't fooling anybody.

Worse, the downstairs tree came down as a Mother's Day gift, if I remember even close to correctly. Eric had never taken the tree down before and didn't know where to put anything. I didn't care anymore and just wanted it gone. I was ready to light a torch. The torch is the ultimate frustration threat, and I think my family is a little afraid of me on a good day, but on a "torch" day, they scurry. Anyway, I told him to just put stuff in boxes and put them in the furnace room and that would do. And it did. It wasn't ideal, but it was adequate.

So, this year, I am pleased to say our basement tree was down before Epiphany. The upstairs tree was stripped this evening. I even put all of what we call our special ornaments in a separate box and included a sheet that said what they all were.

Every year, we buy an ornament as our special ornament. Some years, we've chosen very plain ones. Some years, they've been a little more flamboyant. This year's wasn't really a Christmas ornament, but a large, glass ornament sort of like a saggy, squashed witch ball that you might find hanging outdoors or in someone's well-lit window. It's very heavy, and our poor tree sagged under its weight.

We label each special ornament with the year. We've only broken one. We hang its remnants up there. It was one of those that you clip on the tree. It was three balloons. The balloons were glass, and Kayleigh got a little carried away in her excitement one year, and one of them broke. Another broke a few years after that, so we're down to two wires and one balloon.

We chose the balloons because Kayleigh was heavy into "The Red Balloon" when she was little. When we played it on TV, she would pretend to be Pascal. At the park, we played The Red Balloon. Anywhere there was something to climb, she climbed, grabbed a red balloon, and slid back down, just as Pascal did. I had to tell her Little Kissy (OK, chide away, but at least it's some evidence that I actually do have two X chromosomes.) and the Red Balloon stories before she would go to sleep at night. Can we say obsessive? Now I have to tell them to Kelsey, who is much fussier about the plot. After 12 years of red balloon stories, I think I've tapped my best material.

It's nice to look at each year's ornament as I put it on the tree every Christmas. Putting them away is always kind of sad. I suppose that's why we put it off. But someday, when we're old and living in a little apartment with a table tree, we'll be able to fill that tiny tree with a memory from every year we've been together. The booties from the year I was pregnant with Kayleigh, the icicle that always reminded me of a droopy testicle from the year before we were married (no symbolism implied), the gold paper mache house from the year we moved here, and so many others.

Choosing our special ornament is something I look forward to every Christmas. Putting it all away isn't something I look forward to, but having my house back is. It will be nice to walk through my living room instead of around cheery obstacles. And it's done before Easter and Mother's Day this time.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Oh, dear

The weather here has been very warm. I worried we would flood because we always do when there's a big melt in winter. When we were still dry this morning, after a couple of days of well above freezing temps, I breathed a little easier. But then it started to rain. Hard.

I started my tea water then peeked in the laundry room in the basement. Wet, but not awful. Except the drain had plugged. We keep the firewood in there, and the dirt and debris always stop up the drain. I yelled to Eric to come help. He unplugged the drain and I started squeegeeing the water. He ran outside and bailed the window wells. I turned on the dehumidifier, which seemed perturbed to be risen from hibernation. It started getting louder and louder until it gave a great shudder and stopped working.

Anyway, the water was minor compared to years past. The rain stopped. Eric talked soothingly to the dehumidifier and it purred for him.

I finished a story, had a shower, and headed to the grocery store. Just as it started to rain again. I decided to continue to the store rather than go home and bail window wells. I'm glad because no more water came in.

Más tarde...

I let the bunnies out for a run. I read my book while they charged around, sniffing here and there, chewing this and that. I got up to make more tea and take a pie out of the oven, and when I came back to my room, the smell about knocked me back. Someone has left a few marbles of some very potent material under my bed. I'm guessing it was Raven. He seems to smell worse than Basil and crap more, too. Dang. They're usually very good about going back to their box. You can sure tell when they don't make it.

Friday, January 04, 2008

MacGuyver Doug

My brother came over to pick up his wood splitter. He backed his sizable van and trailer up to my garage, then his kids jumped out and ran in the house to play.

I always wondered how he got that sucker up onto the trailer. It's big. It's heavy. Tonight I learned how. He gets a good running start and tries to push it up the ramp before it rolls backwards and runs him over.

Bear in mind it's winter in Wisconsin, my driveway is icy, and his trailer has about five inches of snow covering the bed. I was just a little concerned.

He got it up there on the third try. I stood by to help push on that last effort, but he did it.

He hollered in the back door for his kids to come. They were heading to the cottage. It's going to be very cold.

So Donna gets to the door of the van and says, "Dad, why did you lock the door?" She ran around to the other door, then came back. "Hey! Dad! Why did you lock the door?"

My brother looked at his extra-large vehicle, still running, and its locked doors. He tried them all. They argued amiably about whose fault it was, then my brother headed back into the house.

"All right, I need a flashlight and a coat hanger," he said. No wimpy locksmith for him.

I found him a hanger, and he tore the hooky part off, then started straightening it. He trotted out to his van and started poking the thing here and there. It took him about 10 minutes to get it unlocked. He didn't even swear.

(I gotta find out what drugs he's taking.)

It's scary how easy it is to break into a car.

Anyway, that's the excitement around here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Destitution and How the Other Half Lives

Brother, can you spare a dime?
So. On New Year's Day, I paid bills. No, I didn't need sobering. I just needed to pay bills.

Before I left for Utah, I left a stack of bills for Eric to mail and two to drop off. One to drop off was the mortgage, a rather important bill. Somehow (I'm blaming grief), I missed two other bills, so last week, when I was rummaging through piles of crap on Christmas eve, trying to make a space for Santa, I found these two bills. One was the light & gas bill, the other was Kohl's department store. The late fees arrived with the new bills a few days later. Late fee for utilities: $2.81. Late fee for Kohl's: $25. Like I love just tossing money into the wind. Man, that could have been a delicious dinner for two. Or given to the kids since we haven't been putting any money in their savings accounts recently. Or any number of other things.

This came after my trip. During my trip, Eric mailed the mortgage instead of dropping it off at the bank. Unsealed envelope, no return address, no stamp, the day before it was due. Let's add the $29 stop-payment fee so the bank doesn't get paid twice or some hoodlum doesn't cash it. We haven't received it back in the mail or gotten nastygrams from either bank involved.

After the New Year's Day bill paying, we have approximately 48 cents to last until Jan. 15, when Eric gets paid again, at which point most of that check will go to the mortgage. If we can get it there.

We've been living beyond our means since we met.

We bought a house when I was 22. I really just wanted a cheap apartment close to campus. Eric wanted a nice place to live and didn't care what it cost, as long as it was appropriate for throwing parties. But my mom really put the pressure on to get a house. So we did because I couldn't ever put my foot down in those days. It was a lot of money, of course, and we borrowed the absolute limit that we were allowed. It makes it hard when, just after you close the deal, everything inside the house needs fixing, and suddenly you need things you never needed before, like a lawnmower, a ladder, caulk. Oh, and a new car. A month after we bought our house, our car died.

And then I got pregnant. Kids cost a lot of money.

I want my kids to have clothes that fit that aren't 17 years old. I want them to have shoes that don't cause their toes to become disfigured. I want them to have music lessons and play sports. And I want them to have a Wii for Christmas if that's what they want. It all adds up. A lot.

I don't buy them ridiculously expensive clothes. They've come home very satisfied from Good Will, and Kayleigh's favorite pants came from some chick in Alabama who sold them on eBay along with two other pairs and a couple of shirts (Girls lot jeans pants blouse shirt CUTE!) They get their share of new stuff, too, usually from Kohl's or Penney's.

If they ever want something outrageous like Seven for all Mankind they can save their pennies. Good god. Asses just don't care what stitching is on the pockets that cover them. Especially when we're talking the asses of children who are just going to grow out of them.

Cry me a river, right? There are loads of people who'd love to struggle with how much money we have. So what the hell is our problem? We have this incessant desire for more stuff, more enrichment, more everything. Even food. I'm fat, for cryin' out loud. (Don't even tell me I'm not because I have the power to see through even the thickest, darkest bull shit.) And I hate it.

So what am I going to do about it? I'm going to plan our trip to Disney World. We all have the same week off for spring break for the first time since Kayleigh was in kindergarten, and we're going. There's a credit card on my nightstand just waiting to be used for the very first time.

All this crap has been on my mind. The price of plane tickets has gone up. The train, oddly enough, is a pretty good deal. But, like driving, it takes so long. Look out the windows, kids, there's Disney World! No, we don't have time to stop, we have to head back home! Hope you liked Florida! and Georgia! and Tennessee! and Kentucky! and Indiana! and Illinois! Nope, no time to stop!

If we do fly, we'll have to rent a car. We have to sleep somewhere. And eat. And surely we'll buy a few fucking souvenirs. Just chuck it all on the credit card. That's what it's there for, huh? Let the kids sort it all out when we die.

Did you send the Christmas card to the Riff-Raffs, lovey?
Anyway, this was all swirling through my head when we got our annual Christmas card from our very successful friends we've never met. They live in Edina, Minnesota, and own a mortgage company. They ski, they golf, they collect Porsches. Their garage is larger than my lot.

Years ago, when we bought that first house, we got a Christmas card from them. There was their picture, in their robes before their Christmas tree. A fairly ordinary couple with fairly ordinary children we'd never seen or heard of. They opted to send their son to traditional kindergarten rather than the French immersion program they'd been considering. I would have laughed, but they were very solemn. French? Pull my finger. Anyway, I figured they had the wrong people and didn't think much about it.

The next year we got another card. By then we had Kayleigh, a fine human specimen, so I sent them a card with our family picture explaining how sorry we were if we were just morons, but we didn't know them at all, and here was our picture and what we did in the world. We got no response.

Until the next year when we got another card. Well, it was more of a book by then. They must have had a good year in the mortgage business. There was a note that said they would have to catch up with their friends another way, but it didn't seem right not to send us a card.

So we've been sending cards and letters at Christmas ever since.

They bought another Porsche this year despite having to let some people go at their company. The housing market has been terrible, you know.

This year, they tell us they've been exchanging cards for years with these people in Appleton with our name because they thought their address was ours. And I'm wondering exactly how many people they're sending cards to that they don't know, or do they suddenly think we're the ones they do know?

They seem like fine people. I'm sure they'd make good neighbors. Maybe they'll lend us some money.