The Schumin Web w  w  w  .  s  c  h  u  m  i  n  w  e  b  .  c  o  m Fri, 18 May 2018 17:30:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Schumin Web 32 32 37838674 When you just hate recognition that much… Wed, 16 May 2018 03:05:24 +0000 People are always amazed when I tell them that I hate receiving recognition.  I just don’t like it.  I don’t find it enjoyable.  In fact, I find it incredibly awkward all around.  I don’t know what it is, but it just isn’t a fun thing.  This came to mind recently because of two discussions that I had with colleagues in the last few weeks.  One was about an operator competition that my employer was having, and another was about an employee of the month program that my specific division has.

In the case of the former, where train operators go out and demonstrate their skills for judges, I couldn’t see any way to get a satisfactory result for myself as a participant.  If I don’t place, I’m kicking myself for not doing better.  If I place, then I have to deal with a whole bunch of unwanted recognition.  Not participating at all seems to take care of both concerns, and I have no problem attending as a non-competitor and watching others compete.  I’ve done that before at a similar event for the bus, where I was there but didn’t compete, and I had a blast.  Besides, I have the most fun just being myself while operating the service.

In the case of the latter, a coworker brought up the idea of it, and how I would possibly be a good candidate for the employee of the month award.  I was honest about it: if I ever were to get the award, I believe that my response would be, “Thank you very much, but please give it to someone else.”  In other words, I would probably decline it.  I just want to do my job and call it a day, and a whole bunch of unnecessary attention just gets in the way of my being awesome.

Thinking about it, I imagine that 24-year-old me would have been surprised to find out that 36-year-old me wants nothing to do with awards or formal recognition to the point that I would decline an award if one was offered to me.  After all, at 24, I was chasing after the “Four Star Cashier” award at Walmart, which had somewhat nebulous criteria, but which I persistently pursued until I got it.  However, that pursuit had a specific purpose: a resume line.  I could put that on my resume as a professional award, because I was definitely looking for a better job the entire time that I was working at Walmart.  Did it help?  Probably not, but it is still on my resume and my LinkedIn profile, though considering the age of the award (12 years!) and the fact that my employment with Walmart did not end on good terms, I probably should take it off of there.

But, interestingly enough, college-aged me got it. We have documented proof of that in a 2003 quote article about my then-upcoming college graduation, where I intended to – and did – ditch the ceremony entirely.  I had plenty of reason to hate JMU by the time that I graduated, as college was generally a negative experience for me where I didn’t see much success.  And I still resent that “senior roast” that LPCM did for me back in 2003.  I had missed whatever LPCM end-of-year event that also honored the seniors due to another commitment that I couldn’t get out of.  I didn’t mind missing it, though going to that would have been preferable to what I was stuck going to, i.e. a dinner where Residence Life masturbated to its own accomplishments.  In any case, I was content to let it go.  But apparently the minister couldn’t, because the following Wednesday, she did what she couldn’t do the previous Sunday and “roasted” me in front of the group.  I was mortified.  I was definitely not in my happy place with that.  Very uncomfortable situation.

You don’t know how happy I was to find out when I was training to be a train operator that there was no graduation event at the end of the program.  Just finish and move on.  When I trained for the bus, there was a graduation event at the end of that program, and I was hand-wringing on that one for several weeks prior, because I knew that the whole thing would be awkward.  I somehow managed (getting paid to participate in that dog and pony show definitely helped in that case), but nonetheless, it caused a lot of unnecessary stress.

And then there’s my birthday.  That big ball of awkwardness that celebrates the fact that I completed another trip around the sun.  I’m pretty sure that I hate my birthday because it’s always awkward, but the fact that the birthday is so culturally ingrained as a celebration makes it hard to avoid.  Elyse and I are going down to see my parents on my birthday, and hopefully I will be able to convince them to act like it’s not my birthday and avoid all of the awkwardness.  I still remember 2005, back when I was working at Walmart, and deliberately didn’t request off on my birthday in order to forget about it.  That backfired majorly, as a few people knew about it, and they told everyone.  All day, I couldn’t avoid it, because the stream was constant.  I just wanted to do my job and go about my business.  I’m amazed that I didn’t slug someone that day, though that would have totally been worth getting fired over.  And really, birthdays are not a cause for celebration – at least not annually.  A few big numbers, sure, but annually is just too much.  So much awkwardness just for existing.  Just let me age quietly, okay?

I think that the best way to describe my aversion to awards and recognitions is like the ending to Street Fighter II if you win as Ryu.  In the normal Ryu ending, Ryu is shown to have ditched the ceremony following the end of the tournament because, seeing no value in celebrating the accomplishment, he has already moved onto his next adventure.  “The fight is everything,” as it says.  I have found myself getting behind that sentiment a lot lately.  I’m not big into celebrations.  I put value in the process of achieving the milestone, but when it’s done, it’s over, and it’s time to move on.  I especially hate when people fawn over an accomplishment, because there’s no way out of that situation that isn’t awkward.  Congratulations are cheap and feel hollow, and as such are of no use to me.  And it’s the little things that stress me out, too, like whether you’re supposed to clap when you’re the one being applauded, or whether you’re supposed to sit there quietly.  Skipping the recognition entirely is always preferred.

So all in all, recognition is just no fun, and I will go to any length to avoid it.

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Reliving the nineties, one adventure game at a time… Mon, 30 Apr 2018 18:25:18 +0000 Lately, I’ve been reliving the computer games that I used to play in the nineties through the magic of YouTube.  I was a Sierra gamer for the most part back in the day, mostly playing in the Space Quest franchise.  I used to love exploring around the worlds that the game created, hoping to make some sort of breakthrough in the game to advance the plot.

Interestingly enough, my first introduction to Sierra was not through an adventure game.  I played Hoyle’s Official Book of Games, Volume 1, which consisted of six card games: Crazy Eights, Old Maid, Hearts, Gin Rummy, Cribbage, and Klondike solitaire.  The game introduced the player to various Sierra franchises, as well as some other folks, via the various characters that you could play against.  You could play against Princess Rosella and King Graham from King’s Quest, Roger Wilco from Space Quest, Sonny Bonds from Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry from the series of the same name.  There were also a few real people, such as Jerry Moore, who was one of the animators, and Warren Schwader, who programmed the game.  Jerry and Warren’s kids, Devin and Christina, respectively, were also in the game.  I learned a lot from that game.  I learned how to play several card games, plus I learned about a number of other Sierra franchises by playing cards with their characters.

At the same time as the Hoyle game, I also had King’s Quest IV, which featured Princess Rosella, whom I knew from playing cards.  I didn’t do too well with that game, though, because I didn’t know that it had a text parser interface – and who reads instructions?  I thought it was all point-and-click like Hoyle was.  So I would just wander around aimlessly and eventually either get bored with it or die, either by falling off one of the cliffs, or by getting caught by one of the trees.

Then when my family moved to a Virginia, I discovered my niche in the adventure game segment: Space Quest IV, which was more my style, i.e. lighthearted and funny, while still telling a pretty good story.  Space Quest IV had lots of things that amused eleven-year-old me, such as a creature stumbling out of a bar, throwing up, and subsequently stepping in it:

This was the funniest thing when I was eleven...

I remember my mother’s taking away my Space Quest one time because I described that scene to someone.  I thought it was hilarious, but my mother has never been one for bodily function humor.  Thus, as punishment… you know.  I still think it’s hilarious.

Getting through that game was fun, and it was also a bit of a family thing, as Dad occasionally got into it, as he was the one who found the entrance to the sewer, and then he also later figured out how the bird picks you up and you get caught by the Latex Babes of Estros.  Dad advanced all the way to the mall part, and then I took it from there.  That was a good, solid game.  And who would have ever thought that a space adventure game would land you in a shopping mall?

Around this time, I also played with Leisure Suit Larry 2.  That game was probably a little too mature for me at the time, and the humor wasn’t as good as Space Quest.  I also felt like Larry was just a sleazy guy who bumbled his way through the game while being insulted and mistreated by everyone along the way.  All that said, I never touched another Leisure Suit Larry game, because I wasn’t that interested.

I got the CD versions of Space Quest IV and King’s Quest V around the same time in 1995.  Both games were “talkies” (i.e. all of the dialogue is voiced) in their CD versions, but King’s Quest, for the most part, played the adventure genre straight, which made for a less entertaining game.  The narrator gave a very dry presentation, and there was very little humor in the game.  Compare to Space Quest, where they got Gary Owens to narrate.  It was definitely not a dry presentation with Gary Owens narrating, that’s for sure.

Then I later got Space Quest V.  That game was significantly different from the previous game, both graphically and in play style.  Now, Roger Wilco was training to be captain of his own ship, and eventually achieved that position, albeit by a computer glitch.  As such, the game sent you on various missions as you completed your quest, which started out routine, and led to Wilco’s saving the galaxy from a mutagenic disease caused by a product dumped by the “Sludge Bandits”.  The latter half of that game always creeped me out just a little bit.  Something about seeing those mutants, and the way they would attack you with their goo whenever they found you just gave me the heebie-jeebies.  I mean, this face just says it all:

First appearance of Quirk in mutated form

Nightmare fuel, right there.  And as it turned out, that guy, Captain Quirk, was also a big player in the dumping of toxic waste.  In the end, he got infected by his own goo (the result of which you see in the above image), which led to his undoing.  That game certainly had its frustrating moments, though.  Specifically, the part where you have to rescue Cliffy, your chief engineer, after he floats away while repairing the ship.  You had to be very precise to get through that part of the game, and if you ran out of either fuel or oxygen, your craft would fall to a nearby planet, and there was a long scene before you were given the option to restore:

"Ah, look, Crumpella, a shooting star.  Make a wish."
“Ah, look, Crumpella, a shooting star.  Make a wish.”
“Ok, Slep.  I wish… I wish… I wish we would discover someone else out there among the stars…”
“Don’t be silly, Crumpella!  Everyone knows there’s no intelligent life out there!”

Yes, the game mocks you all over the place when you make a mistake.  That does start to get old when you’ve tried for what feels like the hundredth time to get Cliffy and bring him back to the ship.  If you run out of fuel or oxygen during either part of it, you get to watch Crumpella and Slep – again – before the game tells you, “Fuelish human!  You ran out of gas!” and gives you the option to restore.

Then there was Space Quest 6, which I got in 1995.  The gameplay was not as good as the previous two installments, and the graphics were a bit too cartoony for my liking.  The game also had a very slow start.  After the introduction, where Roger is busted back down to janitor for the events of the previous game, a brief scene of the main villain, and then everyone on Roger’s new ship’s being given shore leave on the planet Polysorbate LX (named for a food emulsifier), you start out doing random things for people, which eventually nets you enough money to get a hotel room.  Only then does the real story begin, as two thugs knock you out and hold you captive with the intent of stealing your body.  I do give that game credit, though, for teaching me some new words: “churlish”, which means “rude in a mean-spirited and surly way”, and “burlesque”, which is “a variety show, typically including striptease”.  In the game, there were chips called “moddies” that some beings could put in their bodies to change their behavior.  One moddie was labeled “churlish”, and another “burlesque”.  You had to peel the label off of the churlish moddie and place it on the burlesque moddie in order to get rid of one of the two thugs.  When you did it all correctly, he inserts the moddie just behind his neck, and then strips down to his g-string and dances off, leaving you alone to complete your next puzzle.  If you give the guy the real churlish moddie, he just beats you senseless and that was that.

I also really got into two non-Sierra games during this time.  The first was one that my cousins got me into: Spaceship Warlock, which is by Reactor.  It wasn’t a bad game, but I plowed through it fairly quickly, and was disappointed when I realized that I had finished the game.  I could have gone on for longer.  It played space a bit straighter than Space Quest, but it worked.  The graphics were very nice for the time, with everything rendered by computer.  They look a bit dated now, but such is what happens with technology.  There was also this animation of a police car, surrounded by a white box:

I imagine that box around the police car is probably not supposed to be there?

Something tells me that in a perfect world, the police car wouldn’t be boxed in like that.  I wonder if that was a technical limitation.  I imagine it was, because the end result looks like an unfinished product.

I never got into any other Reactor games, mainly because their flagship product was Virtual Valerie, which was, to put it nicely, not something that you should buy a 13-year-old boy.

The other non-Sierra game that I really got into was Return to Zork, which was an Infocom game.  That was a fun little point-and-click adventure that Mom forbade me from playing at one point because of one scene:

"Want some rye?  'Course ya do!"
“Want some rye?  ‘Course ya do!”

Yes, Boos.  You had to get him drunk, get his keys, and then get him to fall over in order to reveal the entrance to the underground world.  Mom didn’t approve of that, and so what that meant was that my friend and I couldn’t play it at my house.  We’d just go to his house down the street and play it there.  Mom has always tended to do that, judging a whole body of work based on one element, and it doesn’t always serve you well.  The alien puke in Space Quest IV is another good example.  I found it a little insulting at the time, because it didn’t give me any credit for understanding reality vs. fiction.  I knew that the games were pretend, and thus it was okay to laugh at those things because that’s what they were put in there for.  And in Zork, if you did something really bad, like kill someone, the game issued a swift punishment.  The same idea of Mom’s judging a whole based on one thing didn’t just apply to fiction, though.  For years, Mom judged Roscoe Orman, the actor who played Gordon on Sesame Street, for playing a much more adult character on All My Children when he was also working on a children’s show.  I put that discussion to bed many years later when I said, “Actors have to eat, too, you know.”

In any case, that game, which Mom eventually let back into the house, gave me many hours of enjoyment as I explored the game’s world.  Like in Space Quest 6, I learned a new word: guano.  In that case, you have to release some bats in order to get through the Whispering Woods.  They would leave their droppings as they flew, and that was how you completed that part of the game.  Then you picked up some of the bat guano and used it later to make an invisibility potion.

Watching all of these games again recently on YouTube has given me some new perspective on things, especially with Space Quest.  When I first played these games, I was too young to connect all of the dots (as well as get all of the jokes).  In Space Quest V, it all became clear how the plot came about and how it all unraveled.  Captain Quirk was being bribed by the Genetix Research Corporation, which was dumping the result of a failed experiment in a certain area of space.  Then the product eventually got out from one of the dumping sites and infected the inhabitants of a nearby colony.  When they launched in their shuttle, Quirk’s ship, the SCS Goliath, recovered it, and that caused the ship’s crew, Quirk included, to become infected.  We were given clues to this early on in the game’s mission, where Roger’s ship intercepted a mysterious transmission, and then we saw Quirk sitting with the same being that we saw in the transmission.  There’s an additional clue if you go to Genetix before you’re supposed to: the same being from the transmission will hail your ship and tell you to leave immediately.  Then the next game shows exactly how corrupt Starcon is, as they harshly punished Roger for once again saving the universe, and then everyone from some of the highest levels were complicit with the whole body snatching thing that formed the main story of the game.  So much corruption, complete with the faked death of a crewmember.  It’s too bad there was no Space Quest VII, because I would have loved to have seen the fallout from the events of the sixth game.

I’ve also explored some of the fan games.  Someone made a VGA remake of Space Quest II using the Space Quest IV game engine, and the result is pretty good.  The writing needs to be cleaned up a bit, but all in all, it’s pretty faithful to the original.  The soundtrack is a bit underwhelming for a Space Quest title, but it’s hard to top Gary Owens’ performance.  The narrator in this game reminds me of King’s Quest V and its rather dry delivery.  Then there’s Space Quest IV.5, which attempts to bridge the gap between Space Quest IV and Space Quest V.  It tries to explain how Roger ended up as a cadet at Starcon Academy, and why Zondra, a character in the Space Quest X era, was trying to kill him.  The game is pretty boring, mostly spent running back and forth between several locations, and then ditching the character from Space Quest X in a wedding scene.  Additionally, Roger argues with the narrator, which doesn’t appear in the official games until Space Quest 6 (thus it’s out of place).  I consider this between-games sequel unnecessary, as it doesn’t meaningfully advance the story.  I also always assumed that Zondra’s desire to torture or kill Roger stemmed from something that occurred in the “real” Space Quest X game, which we had not seen (because it wasn’t made), and that what we saw in the fourth game occurred after the events of the “real” game.

All in all, I would love to see the Space Quest series restarted in a real manner, but I imagine that it will never happen.  Oh, well.

In any case, I’ve enjoyed reliving these old games from the nineties.  Such fun.  It’s too bad that Sierra isn’t really around anymore to make more of these things.

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Two projects completed… Sun, 22 Apr 2018 17:44:56 +0000 I always enjoy that feeling of accomplishment.  I recently had a vacation from work, and knocked out two home improvement projects: counter-height chairs for the kitchen, and painting Elyse’s bathroom.  Both of these were long in progress, and several days off of work meant that I could finally complete them.

The kitchen project probably had the most impact on me.  Since moving in, Elyse and I had been using chairs that were the wrong height:

Chairs of the wrong height in the kitchen

I had gotten used to using these chairs, but when I’m seated, the counter is at my chest, which makes me feel like an oversized child.  I bought two chairs from the unfinished furniture store, and they arrived in early March.  They took about five weeks to arrive, ahead of the store’s estimated delivery schedule.  They also gave me a picture frame of the same wood type for free in order to test the stain before doing the chairs.  I asked if they had some scrap wood of the same type that I could test on, and they delivered.  The fact that it’s a whole picture frame means that it might be useful for something later on.  In any case, I did pretty well with the staining.  First, I did a side-by-side test with a small section of toe board left over after I completed that project:

I think that we have a winner!
I think that we have a winner.  The best match was also a stain and polyurethane combo product, which saved me a step.  Plus, unlike the straight stains, this product was water-based, which made cleanup easier.

Then I tested it on the picture frame, and held it up to the cabinets for comparison:

Side-by-side comparison with the picture frame and the cabinet door.

Seems to work.  With the color testing complete, it was time to attack the chairs.  I did a small section on the underside of one of the chairs, and that passed, and so I was ready to go.  I did the first coat of stain on the first chair all in one night:

Not bad, if I do say so myself.

Not too shabby.  I did, however, make a few rookie mistakes.  I did the top first, and then flipped it over to do the rest.  I ended up with a few drips going towards the top of the chair, and also got a big stain spot and a longish drip where the plastic bag that I was using to protect the counter made contact with part of the back of the chair.  Okay.  I ended up sanding those areas back down to the bare wood, and did those areas again.  Here’s a closeup of the big stain spot after I worked to remediate it:

It's not perfect, but it's at least smooth again, and looks more like something in the wood rather than a staining mistake.  I could live with that.
It’s not perfect, but it’s at least smooth again, and looks more like something in the wood rather than a staining mistake.  I could live with that.

Then after my repair to the first coat had a chance to dry, I sanded it all with fine grit sandpaper in order to smooth out any remaining roughness:

Sanding the chair

Sanding the chair
(That dark spot on the underside is not a mistake.  That was the earlier test area.)

I certainly appreciated being able to do this out on the deck.  The weather was perfect for outdoor sanding.  Then the second coat went on a few days later, and it didn’t look too bad:

First chair completed.

Not too shabby.  Once that dried, I put felt pads on the feet, and that was that.  Here’s the completed first chair next to the second chair, still in its original, unfinished state:

Completed first chair and second chair still unfinished.

Not bad, if I do say so myself.  I followed the same process for the second chair, being more careful with the stain to ensure that I didn’t get any drips or spots.

Second chair, partway through the first coat.
Second chair, partway through the first coat.

And this is the finished product:

The two chairs, completed. The first chair is on the left, the second chair is on the right.

The first chair that I did is on the left, and the second chair is on the right.  I was a little more liberal with the stain on the second chair, and that led to a slightly darker finish.  I’m okay with that, because I did it myself, and it was done with love.  And considering that Elyse immediately laid claim to the darker chair, we now have “our” chairs in the kitchen.

And here they are in place:

The completed chairs in front of the breakfast bar.

I like it.  All I have left to do is get some seat pads, and I’ll do that the next time I go to IKEA.

The painting project, meanwhile, was my first paint job since doing my bedroom at my parents’ house in 2004.  It went well enough.  When I got the house, I thought that the color in the basement bathroom was far too dark.  Here’s a photo from the day before move-in:

The basement bathroom as we found it, with Elyse's towels already in place.

There was white tile up to about waist height, and then the walls were dark blue.  I liked the white tile, and I had no plans to change that.  The walls, however, were entirely too dark for that white tile.  Additionally, if you look at the right wall, there is evidence that liquid had run down the wall.  We soon discovered that the liquid was leaching out of the paint.  Whenever Elyse took a shower, it reappeared.  Our original intent was to seal it up with a new paint job, but when I checked a rough spot in the paint with my nail, I was surprised to find that we were able to peel off large sections of that paint:

A large section of that bad paint, gone.

I was surprised at how easily it came off.  We were able to peel away most of that blue paint, revealing a white wall in mostly good condition.  Apparently, that blue was just an exceptionally bad paint job.  The leaching problem went away with the old paint.  I ended up skim coating the areas where the remaining blue paint that we couldn’t get rid of met the plain wall.  Sanding that made so much dust, and it went everywhere.  Here’s what it looked like in the hallway outside the bathroom:

I was covered in it, and tracked it all over the basement.  Some dust even went under the door into Elyse’s room.  So much cleaning afterward.

Meanwhile, be careful with how you remove hardware from the walls.  Elyse wanted to get rid of the towel rack next to the sink because it was in poor condition.  I got most of the hardware off easily, but then the mounting bracket gave me trouble, unscrewing a quarter inch from the wall and going no further.  So, thinking that it was stuck in something, I decided to use the brute force method to get it off of the wall.  So I put a claw hammer in behind it and used that to pull it out.  The good news was that I got it out.  The bad news was that I also took a chunk of wall out with it.  Whoooooooops.  Thank heavens for patches.  I just patched that and put joint compound over it, and you would never know that there was a hole there.

And then once the walls were prepared, painting it was pretty straightforward.  Elyse and I chose a light blue color called “Moonlight Rendezvous”.  First taping:

Taped and ready to go!

Taped and ready to go!

Taped and ready to go!

You can really see in these photos just how much paint we were able to peel off.  Yes, the previous paint application was just that bad.  But Elyse had tremendous fun peeling all of that paint.  And then the painting took no time at all.  This was the final result:

All done!

All done!

All done!

I was pleased with this result.  I knew that a lighter color would harmonize better with the white tile than that dark blue.  I have nothing against dark colors, but when you have white tile covering half of the wall, you need to make sure that things harmonize.

Meanwhile, my next project is Elyse’s bedroom.  That ugly chandelier is leaving, being replaced by a ceiling fan, and then it’s also getting new paint, i.e. white trim and whatever color that Elyse picks for the walls.  That should be pretty straightforward, though painting all of the trim is going to be a real pain in the butt.  But I’m up to the challenge, so I don’t mind.

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They listed the color as black… Mon, 02 Apr 2018 18:23:10 +0000 In the time since the Soul burned a little less than two months ago, Elyse and I had been wondering what happened to it afterward.  We knew that it had been taken to Terry’s Body Shop in Purcellville immediately after the fire, and then the insurance company moved it to a facility in Culpeper in order to do their investigation.  The sequence of events that I described and the photos of the fire itself pointed to a fuel fire, i.e. that fuel started leaking out near the engine, and then, presumably, once the leaked fuel hit the hot engine, it ignited, and the rest was history.  However, the results of the insurance company’s investigation were inconclusive, as the fire had burned everything so thoroughly that their experts were unable to formally determine a specific cause that triggered the whole sequence of events.

Elyse had wondered if the car would end up on one of those auto salvage auction sites, and went hunting online to see if she could find it.  Her search came up empty.  Then, a few weeks later, I put the Soul’s VIN into Google to see what came up.  I didn’t expect to find anything, so I was a bit surprised to hit pay dirt.  I found a page from Insurance Auto Auctions with photos of my former car.  The listing indicated that the damage was “total burn”, with a black exterior and a black interior.  The black interior was correct, though I imagine that they weren’t thinking of the one that I remembered, but rather the one that existed after the fire.  The description of the exterior color as “black” amused me, because most of the body was no longer green following the fire.  Considering that, it’s pretty hard to argue with that description of the color.

Right front view.  I imagine that this side, with its heavy smoke and fire damage, is what led the auction site to list the car's color as "black" instead of green.
Right front view.  I imagine that this side, with its heavy smoke and fire damage, is what led the auction site to list the car’s color as “black” instead of green.

Left front view.  Note the missing front tire.  That tire exploded in the video that Elyse took.
Left front view.  Note the missing front tire.  That tire exploded in the video that Elyse took.

Front view.
Front view.

Right rear view.  I saw this photo, and my first reaction was, "Hey, the wheel survived!"  I'm pretty sure that's the only part of the car that made it out undamaged.
Right rear view.  I saw this photo, and my first reaction was, “Hey, the wheel survived!”  I’m pretty sure that’s the only part of the car that made it out undamaged.

Left rear view.  The back door was open during the fire because we immediately went around and grabbed all of our stuff before fleeing, and so I assume that's why the door buckled like that.
Left rear view.  The back door was open during the fire because we immediately went around and grabbed all of our stuff before fleeing, and so I assume that’s why the door buckled like that.

Under the hood.  That's my new engine right there.
Under the hood.  That’s my new engine right there.

The front seats and dashboard.  About the only things still recognizable are the gear selector and the seat frames.  Everything else melted away.
The front seats and dashboard.  About the only things still recognizable are the gear selector and the seat frames.  Everything else melted away.

Rear seats.
Rear seats.

I’m glad that I found these photos.  I got a chance to see the Soul one last time, even if only via photos online, which brought me some level of closure as I got a chance to say goodbye at my own pace.  I also got to see the full extent of the damage in daylight.  I didn’t get a chance to get a good look at the damage at the time because it happened at night, plus, once the fire was out, the emergency responders had to get everything cleared away quickly in order to reopen the road.  I was also not in a good emotional state at the time, and so I wasn’t necessarily looking at things with the rational eye that I usually do.

I shared these auction photos with a few relatives and friends, and one question came up several times: why would anyone want to buy that?  The answer is, of course, that no one wants to buy it as a car, but all of that metal is probably worth something as scrap.  I imagine that her next stop will be the junkyard crusher, described by TXL from Today’s Special as “machines used to crush, smash, and pulverize old cars and trucks.”  It makes sense to me.  The insurance company doesn’t need it anymore now that their investigation is done, and the auction is how they get it off of their hands so that it can be properly disposed of.

So all in all, 90,000 miles, two engines, and one fire later, the Soul’s story appears to have come to its end.  It is now in that big parking lot in the sky, so to speak, and I now drive a Honda, which, after a rough beginning, I’m starting to bond with.  All is well again, and life goes on.

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Now working out on land… Sun, 25 Mar 2018 17:39:42 +0000 My exercise regimen has, for the past year or so, been a matter of fits and starts.  I resumed going to the pool before work last July, and ended up discontinuing it in October.  Now, I’m going to Planet Fitness a few nights a week in order to regain my boyish figure.  So far, so good, though admittedly, I’m still trying to figure out my groove.

It’s a shame, though, that I’m hanging up my speedo, at least for the time being.  When I went back to the pool, I intended to go in, do my hour, and then get ready for work.  However, I think that it was a combination of factors that doomed it.  I work nights, and that meant that the time that I used to work out some years back was now spent at work.  With the pool’s closing at 9:00, that meant that if I wanted to go, I had to go in the morning.  It is hard to get up first thing in the morning to go exercise.  That also stuck me in with what I called the “Leisure World crowd”, which was typically an older set that swam slowly.  When those people reached a certain level to where we started swimming three to a lane, it directly impacted my ability to complete my own workout.  That becomes frustrating when it happens on a regular basis.  I also felt rushed through the whole process because of a hard timepoint, i.e. getting to work on time, right afterward.  Get in, swim, get out, go to work.  I don’t like rushing, because that just sucks the fun out of the whole endeavor.

Additionally, at Montgomery County swimming pools, as a lap swimmer, you quickly learn where you stand on the totem pole of swimmers.  You are right at the bottom, down where the dog lifts its leg.  Swim team is at the top of the heap, and then you have aqua aerobics classes, swim lessons, SWIMontgomery (the pre-swim team program), and even open recreational swim (i.e. kiddie playtime) that takes precedence over lap swimming.  The management has no problem giving a full lane to a swim lesson group of five preschoolers and one instructor that will never leave the shallow end, and which requires a special platform so that the kids can even touch bottom, while cramming eight or nine people into two lanes for lap swimming.  Good luck trying to get a good workout under those circumstances, with that many people stuffed into a lap lane.  Likewise, the management won’t return lanes if a class has low attendance.  I have seen many occasions where an aerobics class is given four lanes (i.e. half the pool) for about five participants, while the lap lanes are crowded.  It’s ridiculous.

I also feel that as my swim workout goes, I have topped out, at least for now.  When I went back to swimming in 2011, I worked my way up to about a 90-second lap within the first year.  That’s where I’ve more or less stayed ever since then.  I haven’t made an improvement in my lap time since then, and so it started to feel like the challenge was gone.  It became routine.  I always need something to work towards.  I hate just maintaining equilibrium.

All in all, the pool became more trouble than it was worth, especially for the money that I was paying for it.  I was going there and not enjoying it.  If it tells you anything, my stopping going to the pool last October came about because I fell ill with a cold that was bad enough that it kept me home from work for a day, and then realized after I felt better again that I didn’t miss it.

So after a period of my attempting to guilt-trip myself into going to the pool, and one half-hearted trip to Germantown Indoor Pool that actually cemented the idea that it’s more trouble than it’s worth, I finally opted to move on.  I looked back on my experience in the pool in 2012-2014, when I was at my peak there.  The idea was to determine what made the pool work during that time vs. later on when it did not.  The take-home points were that I felt challenged at what I was doing, I was having fun doing it, and I was going after work (i.e. I did not have to rush through it).  Those factors guided my research into new alternatives to the county pools.  Hours were my biggest consideration.  I do my best when working out if I do it after work.  I work nights now, and I will likely do that for the foreseeable future.  Recognize that on the totem pole of seniority at work, with my only having three years and some change, I am fairly close to the bottom, at least on rail (if I were still a bus driver, my seniority would be better).  So nights it is.  Wanting to work out after work meant doing so during the overnight hours, which put me into the 24-hour realm.

My first step from there was to search for a place that had a 24-hour indoor pool.  I was hoping that LA Fitness would be that place, as many of their facilities had indoor pools, including two in Gaithersburg.  Unfortunately, LA Fitness closes overnight, which meant that I wouldn’t gain much benefit beyond what I already had with the county.  They still closed before I got off of work, which meant that I would still have to go before work if I wanted to swim.  The short answer for 24-hour indoor pools within a reasonable distance from my house is that there aren’t any.  The closest ones are at 24 Hour Fitness in Tysons Corner and Falls Church, but those are 25 miles each way to Virginia from my house in Montgomery Village.  That seems a bit too much to do on a routine basis.  However, if 24 Hour Fitness ever decides to open a facility with an indoor pool in Montgomery County, count me in (hint hint).

So with all of that said, swimming was out, at least for the time being.  From there, I ended up gravitating towards Planet Fitness, which is a chain of 24-hour gyms, with resounding endorsements from my friends Suzie and Melissa.  Planet Fitness also had a $20/month “black card” membership deal that was too good to turn down.  It gave me access to all of the chain’s locations, plus unlimited guest privileges.  That last part was important, because that’s how I brought Elyse into the fold.  Two lower-tier individual memberships would have cost the same, but only would have gotten us access to a single club, plus no massage chairs.  The top-tier membership gave me way more flexibility for the same price.  When Elyse questioned why she was essentially a permanent guest, I put it simply: “Would you ever go there without me?”  She wouldn’t, so that was that.

Planet Fitness has been an interesting adventure thus far.  We’ve been going for about four weeks, and we’re both still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.  While Elyse tends to get on the treadmill and spend most of her time there, I’ve been exploring around a bit.  I did 20 minutes on the elliptical.  I did 20 minutes on the treadmill.  I gave the recumbent stationary bike a spin.  I tried the Arc Trainer, which is similar to an elliptical.  I tried the stair climber.  I did the “30 minute workout” circuit training routine.  I’ve tried some of the weight machines, and I’m still working my way through those.  So I’m getting around a bit.  The only things that I’m not going to try are the free weights and the upright stationary bike, both due to lack of interest.  For the former, why mess around with free weights when I can do more or less the same things on a machine where I only have to insert a pin and get started?  The weights move along a track, and there’s nothing for me to accidentally drop on my foot.  And for the latter, I just hate regular bike seats (so there).

I’m still finding my groove at Planet Fitness, but I feel like the elliptical and I will be good friends.  Love at first sight, I suppose.  It just feels natural, and it’s also working the muscles that power my knees, which really need some strengthening.  I’ve been using the “fat burn” setting, which adjusts the tension in order to maintain whatever heart rate that you designate.  The first time I did it, I went for the whole enchilada and used 150 BPM as my target heart rate, which is what my doctor recommended.  I briefly got my heart rate up to 150 BPM on my first real workout with it, but my throat was burning, and it was clear that I had bitten off too much at once.  I ended up spending most of my time during that workout around 130 BPM, despite the 150 target in the machine.  130 has been a good target range for now, and I can work my way up to 150 BPM.  At 130, I am definitely working hard, but not throat-burning hard.

I’m kind of surprised that the elliptical is what I gravitated towards.  For some reason, going into this, I imagined that I would take to the stair climber.  However, one round on that thing turned me off to it, because I was exercising with a constant fear of being flung off of the machine if I slowed down.  Oh, well.

Meanwhile, weight work is going well.  I didn’t like the weight part in the 30-minute circuit training, because as soon as I got into a good groove with a given machine, it was time to move to the next station (I actually felt no benefit from the circuit training because it was too much movement and not enough workout).  But doing weights off of the timed course is good.  Slow movement with lower weight (around 70 pounds) seems to work well for me.  I’m putting an emphasis on taking my time going up and down in order to maximize the effect.  I’m still exploring the various weight machines, but I’m definitely having a good experience with them.  I just have to be careful not to overdo it.  One week, Elyse and I only went once because we both overdid it on a thigh machine, and our inner thigh muscles were sore for days.

Coupled with this workout routine is a good diet.  Breakfast is oatmeal, lunch is typically a salad, and dinner is usually a sandwich with some frozen vegetables.  It’s the same kind of eating that I did when I lost all of the weight in 2011, and so I know that it works.  Just no falling off the wagon.

And apparently, I’m doing something right, because between February 15, when I got weighed for my DOT physical, and March 22, when I had to go to urgent care for an infection, I lost eight pounds.  I don’t mind that at all.

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My old college bulletin boards, fifteen years later… Thu, 22 Mar 2018 02:45:46 +0000 It has been nearly fifteen years since I lived in a dorm at James Madison University.  I lived on campus all four years, and worked as a “resident advisor” (RA) for two of those years, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, in Potomac Hall.  Part of the duties as an RA involved creating bulletin boards for our sections, which were supposed to be educational and entertaining.  Fifteen years later, they are clearly the work of a much younger man, but they’re kind of cute.  It’s funny  to see what I found interesting back in those days, and how things have changed – and also how much they haven’t.

In Potomac Hall, due to the design of the building, we had to do two bulletin boards per floor, with one at each end of the hall.  The boards were about 4′ x 4′, and had a wooden accent panel behind them, offset to one side.  I would typically make one board more artful, while the other one would be more of a quick staple-up with facts and such.

This was the first dorm bulletin board that I ever did, August/September 2001.
This was the first dorm bulletin board that I ever did, August/September 2001.  This followed a building-wide theme that Mecca Marsh, our hall director, came up with: “SS Potomac“.  I believe that I took the theme most seriously out of all of them (passenger ships have been an interest of mine for some time), and used life rings and ship’s wheels for the resident nameplates to follow the theme.  My ship is in Cunard Line colors, i.e. red (orange) and black, with two stripes at even intervals along the funnels.  I think that I was trying to base it off of the RMS Queen Elizabeth.  But the hull is a little bit iffy when it comes to time periods.  The bow is supposed to be raked (angled), but curves upward to become straight, like I couldn’t decide whether to go with 1910s styling or 1930s styling.  Then the stern is a counter stern, which is clearly pre-World War I, whereas the Queen Elizabeth had a cruiser stern.

This was the "quick" bulletin board for August/September 2001, showcasing some JMU student-run websites.
This was the “quick” bulletin board for August/September 2001, showcasing some JMU student-run websites.  Just screenshot and print off.  And yes, I absolutely went there: that is Schumin Web at top right.  The content on the front of my site is the “Welcome aboard!” quote article from August 2001.

This bulletin board, from October 2001, is one that could have only been made in 2001.
This bulletin board, from October 2001, is one that could have only been made in 2001.  This bulletin board contained facts about tarot cards, and featured Miss Cleo, i.e. the lady from the psychic infomercials, and her “Call me now!” slogan, though the board otherwise had nothing to do with Miss Cleo.  This was the first bulletin board of mine that had ever gotten vandalized, as someone decided to spit on the photo of Miss Cleo, and people did some other things to the board as well.

This was another bulletin board full of facts, also from October 2001.
This was another bulletin board full of facts, also from October 2001.  I got these facts from – a website that still looks straight out of 2001.

These two bulletin boards, both from November 2001, together discussed fire safety.

These two bulletin boards, both from November 2001, together discussed fire safety.
These two bulletin boards, both from November 2001, together discussed fire safety.  The top one gave fire safety facts, and the bottom one discussed fire alarms that one might see around campus.  Most of the photos came straight from Schumin Web, save for the one of the person holding the hammer on a Simplex station.

This bulletin board, from December 2001, was my first "interactive" board.
This bulletin board, from December 2001, was my first “interactive” board.  I had taken these photos over the course of the semester, and invited people to put their own captions on them.  The idea, unfortunately, ended up being a dud.

This was also the first bulletin board that I did that was covered in posterboard rather than butcher paper.  I switched because posterboard had a bolder color palette, it was more durable, it was easier to transport on the bus (Potomac Hall was on the opposite side of I-81 from most of campus), and it was easier to install on site.  Most importantly, removal was a snap, because the whole thing just peeled right off with a single stroke.

My other December 2001 bulletin board, which invited people to find certain things in the building, was done in the TV lounge rather than the hallway.  I supremely resented that.

What had happened to place that board in the TV lounge was that several of my boards had been vandalized over the course of the semester.  Remember how I said in 2016 that the problem with Mecca Marsh was that we never knew which version of Mecca we were going to get?  This was an instance where Mecca made my job a whole lot harder.  I asked her to come and speak to these people during a meeting in order to make the bulletin board vandalism stop, i.e. a message along the lines of a stern reminder that it is not their place to modify the bulletin boards unless invited.  Mecca did something else entirely and negotiated with the little terrorists.  I was dumbfounded.  The result of that discussion was that we would turn the front bulletin board into a community space, and my required board would be done in the TV lounge.  I didn’t like it, but it was out of my hands.  So when I changed the bulletin boards for December, I implemented what was determined.  And then, rather than using that space for whatever they told Mecca that they wanted to use it for, somebody put porn on it.  I saw that coming from a mile away, and was not surprised in the least to see that result.  And then I would have to remove it whenever it appeared.  The bulletin board that I did, meanwhile, bombed, because almost no one saw it (the TV lounge was not a high traffic area).  By the end of December, I had told Mecca, point blank, that I was removing their “community space” and returning to the normal arrangement when I changed the boards again the following month.  After all, the Internet may be for porn, but my bulletin boards were not.  Considering that I got no resistance from Mecca to my rolling back her earlier decision, I’m pretty sure that she realized that she had made a mistake.

Then the January 2002 bulletin boards were pretty low effort:


"What makes you feel 'mmm mmm good'?"
“What makes you feel ‘mmm mmm good’?”

The winter one was intended to be taken at face value, and if I recall, the “mmm mmm good” one, designed to vaguely resemble a can of soup, was intended to be interactive, with the intent that people write what made them happy, but no one interacted with it.  By this time, I had decided to put any interactive bulletin boards in the back half of the hall, because bulletin boards there tended to fare better than in the front part.

For February 2002, I put weird news stories up on this bulletin board, and updated it on a weekly basis.  Because it changed on a routine basis, I got permission to keep it up for an extra month.  I think that the only reason that this came down for April was because I got tired of updating it.
For February 2002, I put weird news stories up on this bulletin board, and updated it on a weekly basis.  Because it changed on a routine basis, I got permission to keep it up for an extra month.  I think that the only reason that this came down for April was because I got tired of updating it.

This one, also from February 2002, about safer sex, went through a few iterations before I eventually settled on this version.
This one, also from February 2002, about safer sex, went through a few iterations before I eventually settled on this version.  My original idea was to tape wrapped condoms to the board and say, “Be safe, take one”.  When I ran it past the folks at the resource center for RAs, they strongly suggested that I not implement it that way, and it eventually ended up being a “facts” bulletin board about safer sex.

In April 2002, this was another "photos" board.  It was the last bulletin board of the year, and I shared photos that I had taken of various folks in the building over the course of the year.
In April 2002, this was another “photos” board.  It was the last bulletin board of the year, and I shared photos that I had taken of various folks in the building over the course of the year.

The other bulletin board for April was dictated by service needs, i.e. information about the dorm's end-of-year closing.  Pretty straightforward.  The only things that I was responsible for were the background and the title.  Everything else was, "Here, put this up."
The other bulletin board for April was dictated by service needs, i.e. information about the dorm’s end-of-year closing.  Pretty straightforward.  The only things that I was responsible for were the background and the title.  Everything else was, “Here, put this up.”

In August 2002, I started my second and final year as an RA.  This time, instead of all freshman males, I had an upperclass hall that was both male and female.  With a year of bulletin boards under my belt as one of two returning RAs in Potomac Hall that year, I felt more comfortable with putting up bulletin boards and had more fun with the boards, and I believe that the later boards were far more memorable than the earlier ones.

These two bulletin boards were what greeted everyone when the dorm opened in August 2002, and they lasted until the end of September.  With no building-wide theme that year, I went for a theme based on the old game show Press Your Luck.

These two bulletin boards were what greeted everyone when the dorm opened in August 2002, and they lasted until the end of September.  With no building-wide theme that year, I went for a theme based on the old game show Press Your Luck.
These two bulletin boards were what greeted everyone when the dorm opened in August 2002, and they lasted until the end of September.  With no building-wide theme that year, I went for a theme based on the old game show Press Your Luck.  Note the presence of the Whammy on something designed to look like the Press Your Luck game board.  The Whammy was something of the mascot for the floor, because all of the nameplates for the rooms also displayed the Whammy.

That top bulletin board was pretty straightforward, showing things that had changed on campus over the summer.  There was a new building on campus, a few things had gotten renovated, and the wooden “stairs of death” that ran between D-Hall and Godwin Hall had been replaced by new concrete steps.  There were 66 steps on the old wooden stairs, but the new concrete stairs had 68 steps.  Then the second bulletin board was to placate Mecca, who for some reason didn’t understand that the theme for my floor was based on an old game show, and rejected it, saying that “press your luck” wasn’t a very inviting term.  So I came up with “With skill, perseverance, and a little luck, you can be a success” as the formal name for the theme.  She ate that right up, and I did what I wanted to do in the first place.

This October 2002 bulletin board was about old money.  It displayed versions of US currency that were no longer issued, as well as larger denominations that were only used for transferring funds between banks.
This October 2002 bulletin board was about old money.  It displayed versions of US currency that were no longer issued, as well as larger denominations that were only used for transferring funds between banks.

Facts about Halloween.  Pretty straightforward.  The pumpkin in the top right corner has the same design that my first grade class chose for our class pumpkin in 1987.
Facts about Halloween.  Pretty straightforward.  The pumpkin in the top right corner has the same design that my first grade class chose for our class pumpkin in 1987.

In November 2002, I did an anti-smoking theme for the hall.  The top board showed the then-new graphic warnings used on cigarette packs in Canada, as well as the textual American warnings, e.g. “Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health”.  The theme seems odd, but it goes with a comedic piece that had been circulating around on the Internet at that time.  The plane bodies were empty cigarette cartons that I had gotten from the Sheetz down the road.  Then the other bulletin board had a whole bunch of tips on how to quit smoking and how to “stay quit”.

That top bulletin board got vandalized, which was unusual for an upperclass floor.  I guess the smokers took it personally?  While I had eventually resigned myself to the fact that my boards would definitely get vandalized on the freshman side, upperclass boards typically didn’t get vandalized.  And I was pissed off about that, because that was my more artsy board, and I had put a lot of effort into making it.  So for the next bulletin board, I went in for the kill:

This was the easiest bulletin board that I ever did.  I partially destroyed the previous month's board and left it like that, with a note explaining exactly what had happened, i.e. that I did it, and why I did it.
This was the easiest bulletin board that I ever did.  I partially destroyed the previous month’s board and left it like that, with a note explaining exactly what had happened, i.e. that I did it, and why I did it.  The whole thing took five minutes to do.  This beat the pants off of Mecca’s go-to response for vandalism, where she had us post the definition of “respect” on the board on a piece of paper.  My tactic, unlike Mecca’s, worked like a charm, because I never had another instance of vandalism for the rest of the year.

Then in January 2003, I came out in full force.  Out of all of the bulletin boards that I did, this was definitely my favorite:

This was my "Netculture" bulletin board.
This was my “Netculture” bulletin board.  I found a bunch of flash animations on the Internet, mostly animutations of some sort, and then used a graphics program to chop them up and make this collage of sorts, that covered not only the bulletin board, but also the wooden accent panel behind it.  I took graphics from Hyakugojyuuichi!!!, Rubber Duckie, Dash, Irrational Exuberance, All Your Base Are Belong To Us, Mario Twins, an Afghanistan-themed take on the “Banana Boat” song, Mr. Nice, Gonads and Strife, the Japanese Hi-HO commercials from Panasonic, and probably a few other things that I’m not remembering.  Basically, the early 2000s Internet threw up on the wall.  I was sad when I inevitably had to take it down.

By the way, if this bulletin board sounds familiar, I wrote about it before in 2005.

The other board for January was a bit more educational, though less visually appealing:

This was a zoning map of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
This was a zoning map of Harrisonburg, Virginia.  There are notes around the map with lines pointing to various features, explaining the map in more detail.  Some of these correlate with the things depicted in “The Third Walk” in College Life.

I still don't understand why I made this bulletin board.  It shows grass, sky, and a big, yellow sun, with the words "Everything WIll Be Fine", along with the lyrics to a song that starts the same way from Today's Special.  I remember not being pleased with how that sun came out.  I put it up during a massive snowstorm, and so I'm pretty sure that this board, as well as the next one, were made using materials that I already had on hand due to the aforementioned snowstorm.
I still don’t understand why I made this bulletin board.  It shows grass, sky, and a big, yellow sun, with the words “Everything WIll Be Fine”, along with the lyrics to a song that starts the same way from Today’s Special.  I remember not being pleased with how that sun came out.  I put it up during a massive snowstorm, and so I’m pretty sure that this board, as well as the next one, were made using materials that I already had on hand due to the aforementioned snowstorm.

The companion to the sun bulletin board was this one with the food pyramid.  I remember being a bit disappointed with this one as well, and I think that a lot of it had to do with its turning out somewhat lopsided.
The companion to the sun bulletin board was this one with the food pyramid.  I remember being a bit disappointed with this one as well, and I think that a lot of it had to do with its turning out somewhat lopsided.  It also was what replaced “Netculture”, and so I suppose that, to a point, it didn’t matter what I did in that spot, because I knew that it wouldn’t be able to top “Netculture”.

This board, from March 2003, was a simple design, but the learning was a lot of fun.  It was about “Baker-Miller pink“, a specific shade of pink that was used in jails for its calming effect on those who were placed in rooms painted that color.  The background color was whatever pink posterboard that they had at the resource center, but the text was printed in the real Baker-Miller pink color.

This bulletin board was a disappointment, because I had the rug pulled out from under me at the last minute.  It was not my intention to make this a Schumin Web bulletin board.
This bulletin board was a disappointment, because I had the rug pulled out from under me at the last minute.  It was not my intention to make this a Schumin Web bulletin board.  Rather, I wanted to do an interactive bulletin board, and have my residents post their spring break memories, rather than me posting my own.  But then Mecca, in all of her infinite wisdom, decided that because of the pending start of the Iraq War, that we would no longer be allowed to do interactive bulletin boards.  Well, crap.  I had already gotten the materials for the original idea, and didn’t have time to go back and redo it all, and so rather than have my residents’ memories on there since apparently, they couldn’t be trusted because politics, I filled it with photos from my spring break.  I really resented having the rug pulled out from under me, but it was outside of my control.  It also made it look like a big shrine to myself, rather than something more communal as intended.

By the way, if these photos look familiar to you, they should.  These shots would eventually be used in the An Urban ComparisonThe Awakening at Hains PointAlexandria WaterfrontLake Moomaw, and Mill Mountain Park By Night sets in Photography.

This one was fun.  It was the last bulletin board that I designed, and, like the previous year, was photos that I had taken of everyone over the course of the year.  The title came from a Tom Lehrer album.
This one was fun.  It was the last bulletin board that I designed, and, like the previous year, was photos that I had taken of everyone over the course of the year.  The title came from a Tom Lehrer album.

This was the absolute last bulletin board that I did in Potomac Hall, and it was about the end-of-year closing.
This was the absolute last bulletin board that I did in Potomac Hall, and it was about the end-of-year closing.  The intent, as per instructions, was to leave it mostly blank with more detailed information to be added later.  That never happened, as most of us emailed our information out rather than posting it up on the bulletin board, but you know, we did as we were told.

Meanwhile, the use of “dorm” instead of the preferred term of “residence hall” in this message was deliberate.  At that point, Mecca Marsh and I had a pretty poor working relationship, as Mecca had made some statements in my final performance evaluation that completely destroyed any trust that I may have still had in her.  If it tells you anything, I escalated my concerns about what she wrote to her supervisor, and following review, the statements were retracted.  My use of the word “dorm” was my little way of saying “f— you” to her, because I knew that she would see it.

Each floor also had an information board on them, and most notable there was in the spring semester 2002, I did it up resembling my employer back home, Telegate.  It said “The 11880” (their information number) on it, and had various notices and flyers on it.  Then near the end of the semester, I got laid off from Telegate when our call center closed.  That was the end of that board, as I went in and removed all of the lettering, leaving only the background paper with labelscars from the now-removed lettering.  I think I needed that little bit of closure that removing the letters provided, similar to how I scrubbed Food & Water Watch’s name off of my water bottles in 2013.

So those were my bulletin boards.  They were definitely the work of a much younger man, but they did the job, and, for the most part, I had fun making them.

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No, I do not have the world’s deepest voice… Mon, 12 Mar 2018 01:32:58 +0000 Sometimes, a comment on a post inspires me.  In this case, it inspired me to finally write what I believe will be an amusing entry that I had been compiling for a while about my not-so-deep voice.  It started with this post, made late at night on March 6:

"It's 2 AM and Elyse is criticizing my Marge Simpson voice."

Yes, Elyse told me that I could do a better Marge Simpson than what I was doing in the car on the way to the gym.  Then my friend Pete chimed in with this:

"You often sound like a cartoon lady..."

I was thoroughly amused by that, because it’s true.  I don’t have a particularly deep voice.  In fact, “deep” typically doesn’t even factor into the discussion about my voice.  Give it a listen and see for yourself.  When I was in college, my female hall director had a deeper voice than I did.  In situations where I’m a disembodied voice, I get mistaken for a woman a lot.  I used to be surprised about it, but eventually, I got used to it.  Taking hundreds of phone calls a day as a directory assistance operator while in high school gets you quite accustomed to such happenings.  Those people would be in and out of my life in thirty seconds or less, and correcting someone about gender would have cost me money (pay was tied to average call length, and the shorter the call time, the better).

I have never been someone to get upset about it, since it’s fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  My old boss at Food & Water Watch, whose first name was “Lane”, occasionally got mistaken for a lady on the phone on account of his name, and also got mail with “Ms.” on it.  He would always get so annoyed about it whenever it happened, and would correct people in an annoyed tone.  Someone clearly had a thin skin.  I was always amused by it, because you would think, having lived well into his fifties by that point, he would be used to it by now and would have learned to just roll with it, especially when it was inconsequential.  I admit, though, that before meeting him, I had only known “Lane” to be used as a feminine name.

In any case, I know what I sound like.  My voice is my voice, and puberty is long over – so it’s not going to get any lower.  So I’ve come to take these kinds of things as free entertainment.

When I was working at Walmart, I worked at the service desk, so I was on the loudspeaker quite a bit in performance of my duties.  I was told by a coworker about someone asking who “that old lady” on the loudspeaker was.  When he figured out that it was me, it became a running joke between us, as he would jokingly refer to me as “Benise” due to how I came off over the speakers.

It was also around this time that I had an encounter on the phone with my old sixth grade reading teacher, who was later one of my mother’s coworkers, and I got mistaken for my mother.  My old teacher was calling to confirm a social engagement with Mom, and when I answered, she said, “Hello, Jane?”  I answered, “Noooooooo… this is Ben.”  Then I explained that Mom wasn’t home.  I tend to think that I open my mouth and my father comes out, but apparently, out came Mom that time.

One of my favorite instances was around 2012, when I was working at Food & Water Watch.  For whatever reason, I had to call Pitney Bowes, which was the company that managed the office postage meter.  I got a lady on the phone who answered, “Thank you for calling Pitney Bowes, this is Tyler, how may I help you?”  We talked about whatever business that we needed to attend to, and then eventually, Tyler and I got to the point where she needed to take down my information.  It was clear that Tyler thought that she was speaking to a woman, but I didn’t realize exactly how convinced that she was of that.  Usually, once I give my name, people realize, oh, I’m speaking to a dude.  I am not going to correct someone on my gender over the phone, because it’s typically inconsequential, and not worth the effort.  I’ll just roll with it.  In Tyler’s case, after I gave my name, she didn’t miss a beat: “Wow, a woman named Ben!”  And she continued: “I know that my being a woman named Tyler is unusual, but I’ve never heard of a woman named Ben before!”

Oh, Tyler…

Giving the condescending pat on the head.

That was, um… special.  It never once crossed her mind, upon finding out that my name was Ben, that I might have been a guy.  I saw no reason to burst her bubble, but I definitely had to put some effort into containing my laughter.  And I suppose that a woman named “Ben” would be an unusual occurrence.  In any case, any time there’s an amusing moment with mistaking my voice for the opposite sex, I typically will tell them the Tyler story.

Meanwhile, in my current line of work, I interact with people in an official capacity as a disembodied voice far more often than I do face to face.  I make station announcements for the passengers, and communicate with dispatchers and other personnel via radio.  Two amusing instances come to mind there.

The first was on a weekday at the end of my first trip across the line.  I had been making station announcements the whole way across on what was a rather uneventful trip.  When I got to the end of the line, two ladies came up to my cab window.  I came out, and they asked me if the train had automated announcements.  I pointed at the newer train on the other track, and said, “Those do,” and then pointed at the train that I had just exited and said, “but these don’t.”  They were surprised, because they told me that they had heard what a woman making all of the announcements, but I clearly wasn’t a woman.  I took it in stride.  My response was, “Yep, that was me.  It happens all the time.”  We all got a good laugh about it, because I know what I sound like, and they were likely relieved that I wasn’t offended by their question.

Then the other occasion was late at night, as I was going up the line.  I got an instruction from the dispatcher, and repeated it back in a questioning tone, because I wasn’t 100% certain that I repeated it back correctly.  The response came back as “Yes, ma’am!” to confirm that I had, in fact, repeated it back correctly.  I wasn’t worried about it, letting it go without comment, being more concerned that I had gotten the repeat-back correct on the air (i.e. we are all on the same page).  But apparently, someone subsequently told the dispatcher that I was a dude, because a few seconds later, they came back on the air, falling all over themselves apologizing for it.  I laughed it off, because I wasn’t worried about it.  I know what I sound like, and I take it in stride.

Then there was another instance last year where the person on the phone was entirely convinced that they were speaking to a woman.  My pharmacy called me to let me know that my prescriptions were ready, and the conversation went something like this:


“Hello, this is Giant Pharmacy.  May I please speak to Benjamin Schumin?”

“This is Ben.”

“Yes, will you please let him know that his prescriptions are ready for pickup?”

“I certainly will, thanks.”

I don’t quite know who they thought that they were talking to on the phone, because clearly, my identifying myself as the person that they were looking for didn’t register.  Was I my wife?  A personal secretary?  Who knows.  In any case, I joked with the pharmacy people about it the next day when I came through to pick up said prescriptions.  I assume that the person on the other side makes that same call so many times that the responses are automatic, and that they didn’t even notice their faux pas.  The pharmacy manager was apologetic, but I explained that I just laugh about it because it happens all the time.

And lastly, do you remember when my car broke down at the end of November?  When I called AAA for the tow and gave my card number, which is linked to a family plan, the first thing that the representative on the phone asked me was, “Is this Jane or Ann?”  I had to set him straight, because in that case, it was relevant that I was a guy, because he needed to relay to the tow driver about exactly who he would be looking for on the side of Georgia Avenue.

So all in all, welcome to my life, I suppose.  It’s not narrated in a baritone range, but I’m a good sport about it.  I know what I sound like, and am glad that I can have a little fun with it.  After all, it’s inconsequential most of the time, and getting upset about it just causes a lot of unnecessary stress.

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Looking back on ten years at Hewitt Gardens… Sat, 03 Mar 2018 21:54:20 +0000 When I moved to Montgomery County in 2007, I never imagined that I’d stay in the same apartment for a decade.  But I did.  Hewitt Gardens Apartments, on Hewitt Avenue in Aspen Hill, was my home from May 10, 2007 to November 16, 2017, i.e. ten years and six months.  In the intervening decade, the apartment served its purpose, but I eventually outgrew it, and it eventually became very clear that it was time to move on.

I found Hewitt Gardens in a second round of apartment hunting, in May 2007.  I originally wasn’t supposed to live at Hewitt Gardens at all.  If things had gone as originally planned, I would have lived in Oakfield (now split into two properties, with the other called Glenmont Crossing), i.e. closer to Wheaton, across Shorefield Road from H-Mart.  But what happened is that after I filled out their pages-long application and sent in a deposit, I was informed that there were no one-bedroom apartments available, and that they could “upgrade” me to a more expensive unit with a den, and give me two months’ free rent, allegedly to compensate for the change.  However, even that would not be deliverable in the timeframe that I needed, plus what they tried to pull with me was a bait-and-switch, which is a really dishonest thing to do.  Nothing like starting a relationship with mistrust of the management’s business practices, right?  So Oakfield was out, I got my deposit back, and I conducted a new search.  In the new search, I had Hewitt Gardens, Peppertree Farm (off of Bel Pre Road), and Montgomery White Oak (off of Lockwood Drive) on my shortlist.  Hewitt Gardens was first, and it was perfect.  It had a lot of space, it was close to the Metro, it didn’t have a lot of unnecessary amenities, and at $920/month, the price was right.  Plus, unlike Oakfield they showed me my actual apartment, and not a model.  We ended up putting a deposit in with Hewitt Gardens on the spot, with the idea that no matter what else happened, I would have a place to live when my new job started in a couple of weeks.  Peppertree Farm was more money, and had a bunch of amenities that I didn’t need, and then Montgomery White Oak was a five-minute visit, since the apartment was just not very good, as well as more expensive than I would have liked.  So Hewitt Gardens it was.

It took Hewitt Gardens a few days to complete all of the processing on my application, and by Wednesday, May 9, 2007, they were ready to go.  I was up the next day to sign my lease and move in.  So far, everything was good.  I got my stuff moved in, I got the Internet turned on, I got my parking permit, etc.  Additionally, the new job, where I was an underappreciated office monkey at a nonprofit, was going well.

I would soon learn, however, that the place was run by amateurs, and this would hold true throughout most of my time there.

For the first few months of my time there, the property manager was a woman named Jessica Snyder (now Jessica Montz).  She was a nice enough person, being pleasant to work with, and she was willing to accommodate my various requests, such as running a new laundry key to my apartment when a lock change was about to occur vs. my coming down to the leasing office as stated in their memo.  Additionally, if the answer for something was no, she didn’t fool around with that answer, and would tell me so, and, most importantly, she would explain why. I could respect that.

However, there were two incidents during Jessica’s tenure as property manager that should have been red flags as to how the place was run.  The first incident occurred on Friday, July 20, 2007.  I walked out of the front door on my way to the bus stop to go to work, and I noticed that my car was not in the space where I had remembered parking it the night before.  At first, I thought that maybe I had parked it somewhere else, since there were no assigned spots in those days.  I took a quick look around the lot, and my car was nowhere to be found.  My first thought was that the car had been stolen, but then something told me to call the towing company that patrols the lot to see if they knew anything.  As it turned out, they had towed my car the night before, and it was in their impound lot in Silver Spring.  The reason that they gave for towing my car was that sixty days had passed, and I had not yet registered my car in Maryland – as if that was any of their business.  In other words, because I still had Virginia tags, the tow company decided on its own that my parking permit was not valid anymore, and I got towed.  I ended up having to leave work early that day in order to pay the $150 ransom to get my car out of the impound lot.  When I asked Jessica about this, explaining that she should not have issued me a parking permit and had me use the guest parking hangtag if I was obligated to change the tags first, all she did was apologize for the mistake, but explain that the cost of the tow was on me.  So their mistake cost me $150.  Thanks for nothing.

The other incident under Jessica’s tenure happened with the maintenance staff.  On September 26, 2007, they were repairing my shower, as one of the knobs was leaking water out of the back.  They stepped out of the apartment to get something, and locked the door behind them.  Then they realized that their maintenance key was still in the apartment, and therefore couldn’t get back in.  I got a call at work to let me know about what had happened, and that, as a result, when I got home, I would find my shower disassembled, tools on the floor in the living room, and a maintenance key that they needed me to return in order to complete the work the next day.  In other words, they couldn’t access my apartment because they had locked their only key inside my apartment, and I had to bring it back to them in order for them to finish their work (pay attention to that – you’ll see it again).  This place wasn’t sophisticated enough to have a master key system.  So I ended up having to shower at work the next morning because of their mistake, and the repairs were finished that day.

Jessica eventually ended up getting transferred to another property owned by the same company, and left Hewitt Gardens.  After Jessica, we ended up with a string of several short-lived managers, most of whom were pretty bad in handling maintenance requests in a timely or adequate manner.  “Talking into a void” more or less covered it, because I would have gotten the same results doing that.

One issue that cropped up during this revolving-door period was the air conditioner for my apartment.  At Hewitt Gardens, every apartment had its own HVAC unit.  Therefore, if either heat or air conditioning was out at my apartment, it only affected my unit.  What happened was that the air conditioning became weaker over time.  On hot days, even with the air conditioning running full blast, it would still be hot in my apartment.  I put in work requests for the air conditioning every year, and every time, they would come back and tell me that the air conditioner had a clean bill of health.  I didn’t believe a word of it, but chalked it up to being on the top floor with an attic space above, and heat from other apartments below me rising up to mine.  I suppose that it didn’t matter much to them if my air conditioning was working or not, because air conditioning, unlike heat, is considered a luxury, and thus is not required to be provided, plus, since we were responsible for the cost of our own electricity, higher energy bills due to inefficient operation didn’t affect their bottom line.

During this period, while Melody Taliaferro was manager, we also went through one of several instances where the parking permits were completely reissued to everyone.  In other words, they had maintained their parking records so poorly that they needed to start all over again and issue new parking permits to everyone in order to get the lot under control again.  There’s nothing worse than having to help clean up someone else’s mess, and scraping off parking stickers is a pain in the butt.  This was also when the property management decided that we were not allowed to manage our own guest parking permits anymore.  After this, we were required to go to the property management office to get a guest parking permit whenever we needed one, and they were issued for specific dates only, rather than something that we could use as needed.

We also had to suffer through memos like these about it:

From what I can tell, that is one long run-on sentence, with two very creative spellings of “windshield”.  Also note that it’s signed “property manager” rather than “Melody Taliaferro”.  If I had sent out that trainwreck of a memo, I suppose that I wouldn’t want my name attached to it, either.

Needless to say, Melody didn’t last very long.  She wasn’t particularly nice, either, so I wasn’t exactly unhappy or disappointed when I found out that she was gone.  Word around the property at the time was that the leasing consultant had been asked one day to take a long lunch break, and when she came back from said break, Melody was gone.

After Melody, we got a guy named Keith Johnson.  Keith was a genuinely nice guy, and it seemed like he was trying his best, but my maintenance requests still didn’t get addressed in a timely manner, if at all.  I admit, though, that my first interaction with Keith was positive, as he got a cleaning request done in very short order.  A few weeks prior, a bird had pooped on my bedroom window, in an area that I couldn’t reach without removing the screen.  I was hesitant to remove the screen to clean it, because I wasn’t confident that I could either remove it or get it back in place properly without damaging it, whereas I knew that the maintenance guys could get it back in correctly.  I had previously put this request in with Melody, and it had gotten ignored.  With Keith, after we discussed it and my concerns over popping out the screen myself, it was done the same day.  If I recall, he said that all that the maintenance guys would do would be to reach around and clean the stuff off of the glass, and I explained that was perfectly fine, because that’s what I would have done, but that the screen was my main concern.  In the end, boom, boom, done, but that was about the only thing that I ever got out of them during Keith’s relatively short tenure.

In January 2010, we got Ralph Padron as property manager.  His tenure had a very rocky start, though.  The way that I found out that we had a new manager was when I received a notice of non-compliance regarding items kept on the balcony from said new manager.  I sent him an email:

I live in the 3355 Hewitt Avenue building, apartment 203.  I received a notice on Friday, January 29 that my balcony is not in compliance with the guidelines of patio furniture only on the balcony as specified in the lease.  I find this puzzling, as the only items that I have on my balcony are pieces of plastic patio furniture that have been out on the balcony for more than two years without issue.  What issue came up in your inspection that was not compliant?  Please let me know so that I may correct this matter.  Thank you.

Then I followed up in person a few days later.  As it turned out, Ralph sent this warning letter to everyone, intending it as a reminder memo about proper balcony usage, not specifically targeting anyone.  I had no problem with a memo reminding about balcony standards.  Those came out every so often, reminding us that plants and lawn furniture were, more or less, the only things permitted on our balconies.  Using a warning letter template was another matter entirely, since it warns of noncompliance with the lease, which I took very seriously.  After all, there are two things that you shouldn’t screw around with: my money, and my housing.  They couldn’t screw with my money, but they screwed around with my housing, making me think that I was out of compliance.

We also had another parking permit replacement during this time.  This time, they partnered up with a company to operate the system.  We were given our own guest parking permits again, but they were only valid if we activated them online per usage, and then they were only valid for one or two uses per month, after which you had to pay to use your guest permit.  Even though I got some freedom back by not having to ask the property management for a guest permit every time I had someone over, I really resented the idea of charging for use of the guest permit, because it felt like we were being nickel-and-dimed.

The rest of Ralph’s tenure, through about April or May of 2013, was pretty uneventful.  I actually liked Ralph a lot, though he was no better about getting things done than the previous managers were.  In other words, my air conditioning still didn’t get fixed, and good luck getting anything else done in a timely manner.  I requested a new thermostat because mine was very old and it was difficult to accurately set the temperature, plus my next door neighbor, who worked for the management company, got a new digital thermostat when he moved in during spring 2010.  If he is allowed to have one, so should I.  I got rebuffed: after putting in the request, the maintenance guy later told me, when I saw him in passing, “We’re not replacing your thermostat.”  It was again something that didn’t affect the property management because I was responsible for the electric bill, so they didn’t care whether or not I could set the temperature properly.  Yeah, I love you, too.

I found out that Ralph was gone when I saw a memo come out with a familiar name on it: Jessica Snyder.  I forget what the memo was about, but I was like, oh, Jessica’s back, but what happened to Ralph?  Turned out that Ralph was “no longer with the company”.  Okay, then.  Turned out that Jessica was only managing Hewitt Gardens temporarily until they found a new manager.  That new manager was in place by July, and it was Bonnie Chenault (now Bonnie Dixon), who was the leasing consultant at Hewitt Gardens back when I moved in.  So I knew Bonnie, and knew that she was good, having worked with her before.

That period, from the middle of 2013 to mid 2015, with Bonnie as the manager, and Adriana Castellon as the assistant property manager, was the best as far as a working relationship with the property management was concerned.  We also had new maintenance people.  Great folks all around.  Just about any maintenance request that I put in was addressed quickly and completely.  For instance, I finally got my new thermostat.  I just went in and told Bonnie the truth, that my thermostat was very old, and that I wanted a new one in order to better regulate the temperature.  Sure, we’ll get that put in.  And it was, though the maintenance guy that did it got to see a little more than he bargained for, because he knocked and entered while I was taking a shower.  You couldn’t hear anything in the bathroom when the shower and the fan were on, and so I came out of the bathroom, and, BOOM – there he is.  I laugh about it, because whatever – there are photos of me in a speedo on here, after all, and besides, it’s not like he saw anything that he doesn’t have himself.  In any case, it’s those little quality-of-life things that make all of the difference.  If a $20 thermostat is what it takes to make someone happy, it seems like a worthwhile investment, especially since you would eventually have to change it anyway.  I was pretty annoyed when the previous management refused to change my thermostat, because it just reeked of cheapness.  Now I was pleased because I got my thermostat (however, the air conditioner was still a problem).  I also got a new kitchen floor under Bonnie’s management.  The kitchen floor in my apartment was very old when I moved in, and it really was showing its age eight years later.  I asked nicely, explaining that it was in such bad shape that even when it was clean, it still looked dirty, and we arranged a day to make it happen.  The new floor, which had a faux-wood pattern, was a definite improvement.

I also got a new dishwasher during this period.  That new dishwasher was a surprising solution to the problem that I presented.  The racks on my old dishwasher had started to look a little worse for wear over the years, and a few of the rubberized metal pieces had broken off.  I had asked if they could replace the racks.  It turned out that an entirely new dishwasher was cheaper than replacement racks.  Go figure.

This particular group was also really great about an occasion where I accidentally blocked up the outflow line from the new dishwasher.  I was hoping that they wouldn’t charge me for something that I thought was clearly my fault.  They never once asked anything about how it happened, and they fixed it all perfectly.  I was so thankful for the way that they handled that issue that I brought a container of cookies over for everyone as a way of showing my appreciation.

A mildly amusing situation happened in March 2014.  On March 12, I received a late rent notice on my door.  I was surprised about this, because I always paid my rent on time.  I went looking through my checkbook to find the carbon copy of the check, thinking that there must have been some mistake for me to get a late rent notice.  It turned out that there was a mistake: I forgot to pay the rent.  Whooooooops.  I think that everything to do with my CDL training‘s wrapping up around that time had me distracted to the point that I never bothered to write the rent check.  I ended up having to pay the rent plus a small late fee with a cashier’s check.  When I brought it over, Bonnie and I both got a laugh over it, because we both recognized that it was very unlike me to miss.  And lesson learned, because I didn’t have a job at the time, and so every penny had to count, and I didn’t want to pay any fees for things that I had the power to prevent.

Then, in spring 2015, Adriana, the assistant property manager, got a promotion and left Hewitt Gardens.  The new assistant property manager was a woman named Maira Granados.  I didn’t quite know what it was, but from the first time that I met Maira, there was something that I didn’t like about her.  I dismissed it at the time, because regardless of first impressions, she was there as assistant property manager, and I needed to form a good working relationship with her.  I was told that she quickly curried favor with the higher-ups at Faller Management with a phone greeting that went, “Thank you for calling Hewitt Gardens, I can help you!”

Not long after this, in summer 2015, we got a few new amenities.  We got the option of adding a reserved parking space to our lease for an additional monthly fee, a refurbished building vestibule, and an access control system for the building.

Of the three new amenities, I most appreciated the reserved parking.  I was more than happy to pay for a reserved space for myself, because of my work hours on the bus.  Working late into the night, the lot was typically full when I came home, and I had to take whatever was left.  Sometimes I was able to get a parking space near my building, but on several occasions, including one night where the parking lot and sidewalks were icy following a freezing rain event earlier that evening, I had to park all the way across the lot.  And on that icy night, I slipped and fell twice on the ice while making my way to my building.  I took good care of myself and prevented that situation from ever happening again by buying up that reserved space.  Here it is, relative to my building’s front door:

My reserved space, on the day that I took possession of it.

I wanted the shortest path possible from the front door to my driver’s side door, and by golly, I got it.

The other new amenities were less than satisfying.  The vestibule was never fully completed, and had color mismatches:

The vestibule, redecorated

The walls, originally tan brick (same as the building’s exterior) were painted a light gray color, and then the carpet was placed over the original brown floor tile.  The doors, the door frames, the stairs, and the railings were all kept brown, which clashed with the new color scheme.  This would have looked really good if they had done the full job and painted everything to match.  In addition, the company that they hired to do the painting did a poor job, as roller strokes were visible on the walls when the work was done.  You could tell exactly where the roller overlapped the previous line and where it didn’t.  Additionally, I found it strange that they would replace a very resilient surface (tile) with a surface that was much more easily damaged (carpet).  One would think that for a high-traffic area, a very resilient surface would be preferred, and thus instead of carpet, the tile would be replaced with new tile.  Apparently not.

The access control system was something of a mixed bag.  On one hand, by securing the front doors, it prevented solicitors from coming to the door, and it also prevented restaurants and such from leaving their menus on my door.  However, they really did a poor job on the implementation for a residential building.  The setup was such where residents were given a key fob, and service personnel (think UPS, USPS, FedEx, etc.) were given access codes.  There was no call box installed outside, and we had no way to buzz someone into the building.  Anyone who came to visit had to call me on my phone, and I had to then come down to let them in.  This setup would have been adequate for a commercial setting where the building is open during business hours and secured after hours, but not for a residential setting where the doors are always secured.  Despite the property management’s providing access codes for delivery companies, receiving deliveries was always a bit of a stumbling block, because if the shipper used an in-house carrier, such as Amazon uses, the delivery personnel had no way of making those deliveries.  The carrier would come to the door, find that they couldn’t access the building, mark it as an unsuccessful delivery attempt, and leave, without ever saying a word to anyone.  Amazon provides me with a space to enter an access code in the delivery instructions section of their website, but that meant that I would have to have an access code to give them.  The property management refused to provide me with a code to enter into Amazon’s website, insisting that the delivery people come and get the code directly from them.  If I put a note in Amazon to go to the property management office for the access code, I typically got a notice of an unsuccessful delivery attempt.  If I told Amazon to deliver to the property management office, then that’s where the package was released, and I had to pick it up from there.  I ended up having to use Amazon lockers to get my deliveries, and thus making a special trip there to do it, because I couldn’t get packages delivered to my house.  I blame the property management entirely for that, because Amazon provides a space to enter an access code, but the management insisted that they give the codes directly to the shippers.  I got the distinct feeling that the management just plain didn’t trust the tenants to handle a door code responsibly.  Thus we ended up suffering for their ridiculous decision on how to handle building access for delivery people.

(By the way, if all of this sounds familiar, I wrote about the security system previously in September 2016.)

I didn’t think that a personal access code was that big of a deal, especially since a personal access code was also insurance that I could always get back into the building if I ever forgot or lost my key fob.  Imagine what might have happened if I was still living in the apartment when my car caught fire, and the key fob was destroyed.  I would have been locked out completely, and would have had to wait for emergency maintenance staff to come and let me into the building.

In the end, the way that these new amenities were implemented gave me the impression that this was a decidedly lowbrow apartment complex that was trying to be highbrow and not succeeding at it.  They wanted to be more like the upscale apartment complexes, but weren’t willing to spend the money to do it right.  I also got the distinct impression that they thought that their tenants were even more lowbrow than they were.

Another thing that happened during this time was contractors’ being sent to enter and perform work in my apartment without any notice to me.  On two separate occasions, I was awakened by the sound of contractors inside my apartment.  One time was Manders, a drywall and painting company that was sent to repair some minor settlement cracks in the drywall that were noted during a routine inspection (the inspection was done with notice, but the repair was not).  I chased them out, telling them to return later, and I let the management know what I did.  The other occasion, I woke up to two contractors standing in my apartment who wanted to refinish my bathtub.  Apparently, the property management saw my tub in a less-than-immaculate state of cleanliness during their quarterly inspection, assumed that it was a worn finish, and sent a contractor to repair it.  The contractors told me that I would have to move out of my bathroom completely in order for them to complete their work due to spray. You can imagine how well that went over with me.  I called Bonnie on the phone about that.  My exact words were, “Why are there are two people standing in my apartment who want to refinish my tub, and may I kick them out?”  She said yes, and they were gone.

In any case, there’s something to be said about what the property management really thinks about you when they provide no warning about non-emergency repairs to be made by unescorted third parties in your apartment.

And of course, the air conditioning still hadn’t gotten fixed.  By summer 2016, the air conditioner had gotten to the point that in the peak summer heat, the apartment would never get below 85 degrees, with the air conditioner running nonstop.  That cost me a lot of money, with my August 2016 electric bill’s coming in at $252.08 – for a one bedroom apartment.  My average electric bill for August in the previous five years was $113.27.  This was more than double that due to the malfunctioning air conditioner.  And of course, this didn’t affect the property management, since I was responsible for my own electricity.  According to the maintenance people, the air conditioner still got a clean bill of health, with the maintenance guy using a laser thermometer to measure the temperature of the walls and saying that it’s perfectly acceptable.  I didn’t believe a word of it.

The air conditioning saga finally came to a head in August 2016. The policy for emergency maintenance on the air conditioning was that if the temperature inside the apartment reached 90 degrees or more, it qualified for emergency maintenance.  It finally hit that threshold on August 13, when the temperature in my apartment got up to 96 degrees:

96 degrees in my apartment - ouch!

I called emergency maintenance on that and then left for work. When I came back, I found this in my apartment:

Portable air conditioner!

That is a portable air conditioning unit, with an exhaust hose leading outside.  I couldn’t use my balcony due to this setup, but it did what the regular air conditioner couldn’t do, and brought the temperature down to a more reasonable level.  The next day, the portable unit was gone, and my air conditioner was working properly again, like it should have been all along.  Seriously, the place was cool and comfortable.  So the same maintenance people who gave it a clean bill of health a couple of months ago now said that the poor performance was due to a problem with the condenser, and fixed it in less than a day.  I had been complaining for the better part of eight years about that bloody air conditioner, and all this time, it was a problem that they could have fixed in a short amount of time.  I was seeing red about that realization, but at the same time, was just delighted that I had air conditioning again.  In any case, it goes to show that if the problem isn’t costing the management money, then they really aren’t concerned about it.  After all, the cost of electricity was my responsibility, and so if the air conditioner was in bad order, it didn’t affect them, and that was that.  And as things happened, the air conditioner stopped working again by the end of the season, so the “fix” turned out to be less than adequate.

In the fall of 2016, a routine memo came out with something surprising at the bottom of it: “Maira Granados, Property Manager”.  Not “Assistant Property Manager”, but “Property Manager”.  What happened to Bonnie?  Turned out that she was “no longer with the company”.  Okay, then.  I wasn’t all that surprised that Bonnie was gone, though, either voluntarily or involuntarily, because I don’t think that Bonnie had been having a good time there for a while leading up to her departure.  Since 2008, when the property management office was renovated in order to also function as a model apartment, the property manager’s office was a large room in the back – the equivalent of the master bedroom in a standard two-bedroom apartment.  In 2016, the property manager’s desk was moved out of the back and placed in the front room of the office, directly across from the assistant property manager’s desk.  I couldn’t imagine that Bonnie was happy about losing her office, and having a desk right out in front of everything.  I suspect that I was right, because in my interactions with Bonnie in her last few months at Hewitt Gardens, I sensed that she was not having a good time there anymore, as the warm, friendly Bonnie that I had known since 2013, whom I used to stick around and chat with when I came by to pay my rent, had been replaced with a Bonnie who seemed agitated, and definitely not in her happy place.  I hope that she’s in a better situation now, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t say that I missed her, as she was definitely the best manager that I had at Hewitt Gardens.

Meanwhile, Maira’s becoming the property manager directly from the assistant property manager position was unusual.  I had never seen a leasing consultant/assistant property manager get promoted directly to property manager at the same property before.  Property managers had come and gone, and leasing consultants/assistant managers had come and gone, but if they had gotten promoted, they had always transferred to a different property, like happened with Adriana.  Bonnie had served in the second spot back in 2007, but there was a five year gap in between, and she worked for other companies during that time before returning in the top spot.  It was never a direct move from one to the other.  In any case, I congratulated Maira on her promotion when I came by to pay my rent, while privately unhappy that Maira, who, as you may recall, had my spidey sense tingling when I first met her, was now in charge.

As things would turn out, my suspicions were right. That whole “Thank you for calling Hewitt Gardens, I can help you!” facade went right out the window, as Maira quickly showed her true colors.  There were no two ways about it: she was a snake.

My first direct experience with the “real” Maira occurred in November 2016.  One evening in early November, on a night when Elyse was staying with me, we spotted a trail of drops leading up the stairs when I got home from work.  We followed their trail up the stairs to see whose door they lead to.  The drops went all the way up to the top floor, i.e. my floor, but we lost the trail at the top of the stairs, so we couldn’t figure out whose apartment the drops led to.  It was a little disappointing, but whatever.  Imagine my surprise when I found this on my door a few days later:

The carpet warning letter

That was a very condescending warning letter addressed to me, accusing me of dripping trash juice down the stairs.  There was only one problem with this: I didn’t make the mess.  I wasn’t home at the time that it occurred, and had the train manifests to prove it.  If I had actually made the mess, I would have cleaned it up myself, and even more likely, if I had noticed drips, I would have stopped the drips well before it left a trail all the way down the stairs.  After all, any dripping would have started in my apartment, and I didn’t want trash juice on the carpet inside my apartment, so that would have been nipped before it ever went out the door.

So I did what any reasonable person would do, and went down to the management office to ask about it.  I expected a reasonable discussion that would lead to the removal of the warning letter with an apology.  Instead, I got berated for making the mess, and told that they had witnesses to the mess’s being made, and even tried to blame Elyse for it.  When I said that I wasn’t the one who made the mess, she immediately assumed that I was about to blame my next door neighbor, who worked for the company, and made the suggestion of that herself.  I had no idea who did it, and so I wasn’t going to point a finger at anyone else without proof.

Then came the condescending part: I was also told not to worry about it, because they cleaned up my alleged mess “as a courtesy”.  You don’t know how insulting that was.  She had just accused me of what was essentially a lease violation, and then was dismissive of it, claiming that they cleaned up the mess that I didn’t make for me, rather than charging me for it.  I wasn’t going to sit there and have a black mark on my tenant record for something that I had no part in causing.  If I had caused it, that would be one thing, and I would be appreciative of the “courtesy” cleanup for my mistake, but I didn’t cause it.

You know, it’s one thing to be a liar. It’s one thing to lie and then believe your own lies. It’s another thing to be a bad liar, i.e. lying and doing it badly. Maira was a bad liar. If you’re going to lie, at least make it believable, especially when your claims are easily verified. In any case, it must be a liberating feeling to be unfettered by the truth.

There was also no mention of using the security camera footage to verify the actual person who made it.  Apparently, the security cameras only worked one way: to assess fines on tenants when it is convenient for the management.  A later memo summed that up rather nicely: “We have cameras and can see the presons responsible. Each item that we remove is assed [sic] a $100.00 removal fee.”  I imagine that in this case, the camera footage didn’t fit the narrative that Maira was trying to push, so it was conveniently left out.

I wonder if the trash juice accusation wasn’t a way to try to get rid of me.  At the time, I paid just under $1100 per month for my one-bedroom apartment.  When a friend researched Hewitt Gardens on my recommendation during Bonnie’s tenure, the going rent came back around $1200 per month for a one-bedroom, i.e. a bit higher than what I was paying, plus water was no longer included in the base rent (water was included in my lease).  Thus, as the thought went, was this calculated, and were they pulling these shenanigans in order to make me leave in order to re-rent my apartment at the higher rate that they charged new tenants?  I don’t know for certain, but it was certainly reasonable to think that it might be the case.  I had been pushed out of jobs with Walmart and with Food & Water Watch for false accusations when they decided that my time was up, so I had seen what people will do when they’re trying to get rid of someone.  This fit that mold.

In any case, that accusation, and then Maira’s subsequent sticking to her guns when informed that she had made a mistake, instantly destroyed my good working relationship of more than nine years with the property management.  At that moment, the relationship turned hostile, as I now realized that we were no longer a team, and that it was now an “us vs. them” mentality.  I don’t like having to constantly protect myself against dishonest people, because it is a constant source of unnecessary stress, but that is what I had to do with Maira.

I had to take proactive action to protect myself from Maira on January 22, 2017, when, upon my arrival home from work, I found that the stairs were once again soiled leading all the way up to the floor that I lived on.  In that case, it was dirt rather than trash juice, but nonetheless, I documented the situation:

Dirt on the landing leading to my apartment. My apartment door is back and to the right.

Dirt on the landing leading to my apartment. My door is the one closest to the camera.

This was the same situation, where the trail of dirt ended at the top of the stairs.  But this time, I was prepared, and was not going to be blindsided again by Maira.  I had train manifests to document where I was at the time of the incident, and I had my own photos showing the situation.  If she was going to try to accuse me of making that mess, she would have to prove it, and I was prepared to defend myself.  I imagine that would have been ugly.  Thankfully, I never heard a word about this, and this turned out to be an exercise in caution.  But nonetheless, I shouldn’t have felt that I needed to document everyone else’s messes in order to protect myself.

In February, the parking situation came to a head again.  In this case, the property management decided to phase out the use of the previous version of the parking permits, which had barcodes on them, and began issuing new residents more conventional parking permits with a number and the name of the apartment complex on them.  The barcoded permits were presumably grandfathered, remaining valid for those who still had them.  I remember that at some point during Bonnie’s tenure, they sent out a memo saying that they were transitioning away from the barcodes and to come and get a new permit, but never gave a deadline for when the barcoded permits would no longer be valid.  I got a new permit not long after that, when I went to pay my rent, and said permit sat in my center console for many months, until I eventually needed to do some windshield work, and removed the old permit and placed the new permit at that time.  Then on February 15, this memo came out:

Memo warning that the barcoded parking permits were no longer valid

Yes, folks, that is a same-day warning that the older barcoded parking permits were no longer valid.  This memo went out in the afternoon, and the leasing office closed at 5:00.  That meant that people who still had the old permits only got about four hours’ notice that their permits were no longer valid, and so it was quite possible, for people working a 9-5 schedule, that someone might have been unable to get the permit in time, and therefore would have lost access to the parking lot that their rent paid for.  This didn’t apply to me because I had already changed my permit a few months prior, but it still struck me as a bit unprofessional to only give tenants half a day’s notice of a parking permit change deadline.  Not a week’s notice, as one might expect.  Only half a day’s notice.

And then the air conditioner saga continued.  In May, as it was starting to get really warm again, I played the emergency maintenance card with the air conditioner:

FYI, my air conditioner is likely malfunctioning and in need of repair.  I ran it all day today, and it remained over 90 degrees inside my apartment despite the air conditioner’s being in operation.  Could you please send someone over to look at and repair it?

The A/C was last repaired in August of last year after a similar problem came up.  At that time, they had to do something to the condenser, after which the air conditioner worked properly again.

I wasn’t fooling around.  With that, they were in the next morning, and the air conditioner was fixed for good, as I had no further issues with it for the remainder of my time there.  It only took a decade of complaining, but I finally got my air conditioning fixed.  Elyse was at my house at the time that the repair was made, and of course, Maira just couldn’t help but make her disdain for Elyse and me known, again trying to blame Elyse for something:

Good afternoon,

Pedro just left your apartment and not sure if the child home told you but she has the balcony door open.  Pedro needed to close it to see if the a/c is cooling and she would not allow him to close the door.  Please inform them that it needs to be closed in order to cool.

Thank you,

Maira Granados

I wasn’t home when the repair occurred, but I got a completely different story from Elyse about what happened.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who I was more inclined to believe: Maira, who had a track record of making false statements to me, or Elyse, who didn’t.  I have also observed on many occasions where people are mean or otherwise unkind to Elyse for no discernable reason, and I take a very dim view of people who fall into that “mean to Elyse” category.  Maira just cemented her place in that category.

Then on June 12, I was informed by Elyse while I was at work that Pedro, one of the maintenance people, had come by, allegedly to repair something, and then realized that he had gone to the wrong apartment.  When he left, he left the maintenance key behind.

Now, do you remember how, a decade prior, the maintenance people left their key in my apartment, realized it immediately, and asked for me to return it, because otherwise, they couldn’t get in to complete their repairs?  Yeah.  I was now in possession of their only key to my apartment, and so no one could get in without my saying so.  This was also a good opportunity to see exactly how seriously (or not) they took the security of their residents’ apartments.  I documented the date that the key was left – June 12, 2017 – and explained to Elyse that they could have it back… when they came to me and asked me for it.

In the meantime, I discovered a light at the end of the Hewitt Gardens tunnel, as I toured my current home in Montgomery Village on July 29, and my offer was accepted about a week later.  I knew that I was leaving soon, and so that changed the way that I handled things, because now I felt a little bit more free to put the screws on them, knowing that our relationship would soon end.

On August 16, I found this in my email inbox, following a scheduled filter change and inspection:

Good afternoon Ben,

We were trying to complete a work order request and it looks like we left our copy of the key in your apartment.

Can you please bring it to the office, if we are not in the office please drop it in the drop box.

Hope you have a wonderful day!

Maira Granados

The key had been in my possession for two months and four days at that point.  I had other matters going on at the time related to the new place, so that message got passed over.  On August 24, I received this message:

Good afternoon Ben,

This is the third attempt in obtaining the copy of our key to your apartment.  We need to change the filter in your apartment as it is now overdue.  Additionally, we as the landlord, must have access to your apartment at all times therefore, if we do not receive our copy of the keys by Monday August 28th, 2017 we will have to change your locks at the lease holders expense.

Please let us know if you have any questions regarding this matter,

Thank you,

Maira Granados

Okay, then. With that sort of attitude, it was time to get mean. I fired back:

What is the name and email address of your supervisor?  I have a number of concerns about your handling of my tenancy, and they shall be addressed before you do any such thing.

Her response indicated that she knew that she was in trouble:


As the property manager, you have not addressed any concerns with me.  Therefore, you may discuss your concerns and if we are able to address them we will.  If it something that I am unable to resolve I will forward to the appropriate person.

This is where you separate the bad managers from the good ones.  I think that bringing a supervisor in on a conversation is a reasonable request.  It attempts to ensure some level of accountability on the part of the targeted person, with the idea that if you’re doing nothing wrong, then your supervisor will be behind you, and you have nothing to worry about.  If you won’t do that, it makes me think that there might be some funny business going on.  With my request spurned, I went down to the management office and asked her directly for the name and email address of her supervisor.  Whenever she tried to make excuses, I asked the question again.  Eventually, she threw me out of the office.  Okay, then.  I wonder what she was trying to hide by acting as a gatekeeper between herself and the main office.

I came back with a long email, documenting all of my concerns. Here are the relevant excerpts:

I find it very concerning that you, or people that you, as property manager, are responsible for, have lost the copy of my key, and have therefore compromised the safety and security of my person and my possessions in my apartment.  How long has the key been missing?  Certainly, you have records of when the key has been checked out by staff, no  According to my records, the latest date that I have documentation that your staff was in possession of the key was on May 18, when Pedro entered my apartment to perform a repair on the air conditioning unit.  That means that it is possible, if the key was lost that day, that your office has compromised the security of my home for more than three months.


Additionally, I have found your behavior toward me in the last several months to be highly unprofessional.  In your letter on November 12, 2016, you accused me of creating a mess in the vestibule regarding some sort of liquid on the stairs and carpet, and threatened to charge me a cleaning fee for future incidents.  When I confronted you on the matter shortly thereafter, you claimed that you had eyewitnesses to said mess being made, but were unwilling to identify the alleged witnesses.  I was not home at the time that the incident occurred, and therefore, I knew that you were lying to me, i.e. you were unwilling to name the alleged witnesses to my allegedly soiling the rug, because there were no witnesses.


In our email exchange on August 24, I requested the name and email address of your supervisor, both via email and in person, since much of the problem lies with you.  Considering our previous interactions where you have made false statements for other people’s mistakes that have the potential to cost me money, I have no reason to think that you will be honest in any dealings with me, especially when my concerns are over you.  Requesting a supervisor’s contact information is the way to address concerns about an employee, which is what I did.  That you refused to provide me such information, even going so far as to ask me to leave the management office, is highly concerning.  I have been a tenant at Hewitt Gardens for more than ten years, after all, and one of the reasons that I’ve stayed this long is because I’ve always had a good relationship with the property management.  It concerns me that you seem all too willing to trash a good working relationship with your tenants over mistakes that your office has made.


In other words, I went right for the jugular, i.e. your security practices are deplorable, your behavior is unprofessional, and you are a liar. I’m sure that Maira’s supervisor would have loved to have heard about the hostile relationship between one of their employees and a long-term tenant.

Maira’s response indicated not only confirmed that was she a liar, but she wasn’t even a good liar:


The keys are located in your bathroom, Pedro can come show you today.  Pedro was in your apartment as I stated in my initial email, to do repairs on August 16th and I sent you an email as soon as I was near my computer.  Therefore, it has not been out since May 18th rather August 16th.

Regarding the letter from last year, we had three witnesses to the spill.  We value our residents anonymity therefore, would not ever jeopardize any residents tranquility by giving out their name or address to another resident.  Again, we did not charge you as we normally do, we simply sent you a reminder.

If you do not locate the keys by 4pm we will be changing the locks at that time, if you are not available then we will place the copy of your new keys in your mailbox as that will stay the same.

I was starting to wonder if I had walked into a Burger King, with the amount of whoppers going around.  I knew for a fact that they weren’t in my apartment on August 16, because their only key was in my possession, and I’d had it since June.  Maira’s August 24 email confirmed this, because she indicated that the work that they had scheduled for August 16 was never completed, telling me that the filter change was overdue.  Meanwhile, regarding the carpet, three witnesses that you can’t produce?  Really?  I remember that Walmart pulled that same sort of crap when they were looking to fire me, with alleged witnesses that they were unable to produce.  And still no mention of any security camera footage that might identify the perp, or at least exonerate someone.

In any case, I believe that I had made my point, and I’m pretty sure that Maira had painted herself into a corner.  I made them change my locks, it was completed in my presence, and they paid for it.  Considering that the key had been out of their possession for more than two months before they realized that it was missing, it told me that they took a somewhat cavalier attitude towards key control.  It was clear that they did not routinely audit the keys to ensure that they were all accounted for, and that there was no formal key checkout process to document who had what keys, for how long, and for what reason.  That alone should give anyone pause.

Following the resolution of the key issue, I had no further issues with Maira.  I am pretty sure that she knew that I was looking for an opportunity to get her fired.  Therefore, if you want to keep your job, you play nice with me, because I’m not fooling around.

The smoothest thing that ever happened with them was moving out.  I gave my 60 days’ notice via email that I would vacate, effective December 31, I got confirmation that my notice was properly given, and they left me completely alone after that.  I expected that I would hear from them on moving day, when the movers would block the door open (there had recently been a condescending memo about propping the doors), plus park their massive truck in the lot.  And if they had said something, I am pretty sure that I would have told them exactly where to shove it.  I believe that it would have been something along the lines of, “Okay, evict me.  Right now.”  I was already in the process of vacating the unit, after all, so they had no leverage.

Then after the move was over, I still had the apartment for another 45 days.  I suspected that Maira and crew would find a reason to keep my deposit, and I was determined to give them no valid reason to do so.  Thus I came by after work on December 4 to spackle all of the nail holes.  Then on December 7, Elyse, Aaron Stone, and I came by armed with cleaning supplies to give the place a thorough cleaning.  And finally, on December 31, I came by before work to do a final walkthrough and turn in the keys.  Surprisingly, I found two items that the movers and I missed: a set of popsicle molds, and a bottle of cleaning spray.  Both were in really obscure locations, so I’m not surprised that we missed them.  In the end, my thoroughness worked, as I got my entire deposit back, with interest.  I imagine that because I had been there for so long, anything that they would have charged me for was likely too old to justify, i.e. they would have had to replace or refurbish it anyway.

All of that said, I wouldn’t recommend Hewitt Gardens to anyone.  The rent for new tenants is a lot higher than what I was paying, and water is no longer included in the rent.  And there were far too many acts of management over the years that either cost me money or had the potential to cost me money.  One instance of that is a fluke, but more than once is a pattern, and is indicative of the way that business is done.

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Now I’m a Honda driver, but I’m still missing my Soul… Mon, 26 Feb 2018 06:56:24 +0000 No one ever told me that losing a car would be so difficult.  The car itself is gone, and after about a week in a rental car (a Hyundai Accent), I am now the proud owner of a Honda HR-V, a crossover SUV:

My new car, a Honda HR-V

The Honda is just lovely.  It reminds me of the Sable in a few ways, with things like a thermostat (and not just vent speed settings) and automatic headlights.  It also has a camera on the right side mirror to see a blind spot, as well as a backup camera.  I was quite pleased to have a backup camera, having been spoiled by that with Kevin Wiggins, i.e. the truck that I rented while the Soul was in the shop getting its new engine.  It also has a moon roof, which is something that I haven’t had since the Previa, which had two.  The Honda also has a “sport mode” and paddle shifters, both of which I have absolutely no use for, but hey, they came with the car.  I also got all-weather floor mats, because I have worn through the fabric ones on every car that I have ever owned, plus no matter how much you try to clean them, they never really come out looking good.  Now, with the rubber ones, I can just hose them off, shake them dry, and put them back in.  I was considering purchasing all-weather mats for the Soul to replace the fabric ones, but, well, you know.  Then I have heated seats, which I’ve been quick to call the “bun warmers”.  I think that Elyse has taken more of a shine to the bun warmers than I have, but they have their place, I suppose.

The thought process behind purchasing a Honda HR-V was to get something similar to the Soul, but with a brand that is reliable to a fault.  Thus a Honda.  I wasn’t about to purchase another Kia, after what happened to me, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to jump into another Soul.

I feel, however, that with the Honda, our relationship is starting out on the wrong foot.  In all honesty, we should never have met in the first place.  This car that I now drive should have gone to someone else, and I should still be driving the Soul, because the fire should never have happened.  I’m definitely still mourning the loss of my previous car.  After all, my Kia Soul was the first car that I ever bought new.  That was my car.  I got her with nine miles on the odometer.  We traveled 90,000 miles together, and almost every single one of those miles was driven by me.  I loved that car.  I was proud of her.  I miss her.

The Soul and I went through a lot over the almost six years that we were together:

Our first day together, at my parents' house, March 12, 2012.
Our first day together, at my parents’ house, March 12, 2012.

A shiny, new interior, fresh from the dealership.
A shiny, new interior, fresh from the dealership.

Sporting a Maryland license plate for the first time.
Sporting a Maryland license plate for the first time.

Giving the Soul a drink, October 6, 2012.
Giving the Soul a drink, October 6, 2012.

Waiting at a light, Thanksgiving 2012.
Waiting at a light, Thanksgiving 2012.

Waiting for me upon completion of the shooting for the Sandy Point photo set.
Waiting for me upon completion of the shooting for the Sandy Point State Park photo set.

In Richmond for the Richmond 2013 photo set.
In Richmond for the Richmond 2013 photo set.

Selfie in the driver's seat before leaving a Wawa in Fredericksburg, on the way home from Richmond.
Selfie in the driver’s seat before leaving a Wawa in Fredericksburg, on the way home from Richmond.

At Edge Hill Cemetery, getting ready to photograph in the fog.
At Edge Hill Cemetery, getting ready to photograph in the fog.

Cleared of snow, January 2014.
Cleared of snow, January 2014.

Fresh out of the car wash, January 16, 2014.
Fresh out of the car wash, January 16, 2014.

Digging the Soul out after her first big snowstorm, February 2014.
Digging the Soul out after her first big snowstorm, February 2014.

Aboard the W. Stanford White in June 2014.
Aboard the W. Stanford White in June 2014.

Posing for a photo at Towson University, August 24, 2014.
Posing for a photo at Towson University, August 24, 2014.

Waiting for me after work in March 2015, wearing snow from two different storms.
Waiting for me after work in March 2015, wearing snow from two different storms.

Selfie in a mirror in Rockville, Maryland, July 15, 2015.
Selfie in a mirror in Rockville, Maryland, July 15, 2015.

The Soul is grounded for about a week and a half in August 2015 while I was unable to drive due to a broken bone in my right foot.  I missed her then, too, even though I knew that we would be reunited.
The Soul is grounded for about a week and a half in August 2015 while I was unable to drive due to a broken bone in my right foot.  I missed her then, too, even though I knew that we would be reunited.

A full tank of gas, January 21, 2016, the night before "Snowzilla" hit.
A full tank of gas, January 21, 2016, the night before “Snowzilla” hit.

Digging out from Snowzilla, January 24, 2016.
Digging out from Snowzilla, January 24, 2016.

Following quite a bit of post-Snowzilla digging, we're free!
Following quite a bit of post-Snowzilla digging, we’re free!

Parked on Whiteford Road in York, Pennsylvania while I went and photographed a water tower.
Parked on Whiteford Road in York, Pennsylvania while I went and photographed a water tower.

Elyse sits on the tailgate in Philadelphia, holding up a vintage fire alarm horn, October 2016.
Elyse sits on the tailgate in Philadelphia, holding up a vintage fire alarm horn, October 2016.

With Elyse's help, Royal Street the dolphin holds Elyse's camera in the passenger seat during our November 2016 planespotting trip.
With Elyse’s help, Royal Street the dolphin holds Elyse’s camera in the passenger seat during our November 2016 planespotting trip.

Soul mates at City Place in Silver Spring, April 4, 2017.
Soul mates at City Place in Silver Spring, April 4, 2017.

Elyse uses her phone while we wait for the ferry to leave Ocracoke, May 31, 2017.

At the rest area in New Kent, Virginia, on our way home from the Outer Banks, June 1, 2017.
At the rest area in New Kent, Virginia, on our way home from the Outer Banks, June 1, 2017.

The Soul's only visit to New York City, August 23, 2017.
The Soul’s only visit to New York City, August 23, 2017.

Outside my old apartment on moving day, November 16, 2017.
Outside my old apartment on moving day, November 16, 2017.

Back in action following an engine replacement, December 1, 2017.
Back in action following an engine replacement, December 1, 2017.

The Soul's first snowfall in Montgomery Village, and, as it would turn out, my last photo of her fully intact.
The Soul’s first snowfall in Montgomery Village, and, as it would turn out, my last photo of her fully intact.

That was a good little car.  We certainly bonded over nearly six years.  The Soul was my partner through quite a few adventures in our time together.  You could say that we were soul mates over that time.  I miss the Soul.

I can’t say that I feel the same love towards the Honda as I did towards the Soul.  The Honda certainly has some very nice features, but I haven’t bonded with it like I did the Soul.  The Soul and I bonded instantly, as if we were meant for each other.  I don’t feel that bond with the new car.  The Honda just feels like a car, without any personality.  Perhaps we will grow together like the Soul and I did, but time will tell, I suppose.

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I guess that I can cross “escape from a burning car” off of my bucket list… Tue, 13 Feb 2018 19:40:33 +0000 Sad to say, my 2012 Kia Soul is no more.  On the night of February 7, in Lucketts, Virginia, as Elyse and I were on the way back home from a trip around the area with friends, my car caught fire and was destroyed in the resulting inferno.  Thankfully, we both escaped without injury.

The day had gone pretty well.  We had gotten together with two friends, Trent and Jackson, and we went from Gaithersburg to Rockville to Silver Spring to DC to Alexandria to Annandale seeing various things, with a focus mostly on elevators, as Elyse, Trent, and Jackson are all elevator enthusiasts.  I have somewhat of an interest in them, but not nearly as strong as the other three.  At the end of our day, we dropped Trent off at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, and then took Jackson up to Dulles Airport to meet up with family members of his that were flying in from out of town.  After we left Jackson with his relatives, Elyse and I headed out.  We took the Dulles Greenway to Leesburg, and then headed north on Route 15, intending to go over the Point of Rocks Bridge, and then continuing to follow Route 15 until we reached Frederick, after which we would turn south to head home.

However, circumstances would dictate otherwise.  As we were going up Route 15, the car suddenly started losing accelerative power, getting it back, losing it again, and so on.  The end result was that I was rapidly losing speed.  Elyse thought that it was the transmission slipping, and with that in mind, I was trying to see if I could get the car to a safe location in order to stop and call AAA for a tow truck.  A transmission problem would be covered under the Kia 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and so, like the engine replacement that I had a couple of months ago, I would take it to the dealer to get it fixed, and everything would be fine.

Then things went from bad to worse, as Elyse and I both saw flames shoot out from underneath the car on our respective sides.  I stopped the car, and we got out of the car as quickly as possible.  It all happened so fast.  I remember getting out of the driver’s side door and running around the front to the roadside, just as Elyse landed in the ditch alongside the road.  We then ran around to the back of the car and quickly grabbed our stuff out of the back, i.e. our coats, my tablet, my real camera, and the shopping bags, and then got a safe distance away.  I called 911, and shot some photos of the fire as I talked to 911.

The early stages of the fire, at 10:45 PM.  Note that the lights are still on, and flame is visible coming out from under the hood, through the grille, and underneath.
The early stages of the fire, at 10:45 PM.  Note that the lights are still on, and flame is visible coming out from under the hood, through the grille, and underneath.

Twenty seconds later, the fire is much larger, and has spread to the passenger area.  The person driving the Hummer in the other lane inquired about how we were doing, and also called 911.
Twenty seconds later, the fire is much larger, and has spread to the passenger area.  The person driving the Hummer in the other lane inquired about how we were doing, and also called 911.

Two minutes later, the car is fully involved, with flames rising twice as high as the car.
Two minutes later, the car is fully involved, with flames rising twice as high as the car.

Eight seconds later, the fire has burned through the Kia logo on the hood.  I specifically remember watching that happen, stunned.
Eight seconds later, the fire has burned through the Kia logo on the hood.  I specifically remember watching that happen, stunned.

Two minutes later, the fire department was on scene.  Note that there's so much flame that you can barely even see the car.
Two minutes later, the fire department was on scene.  Note that there’s so much flame that you can barely even see the car.

Putting out the fire.
Putting out the fire.

Still putting out the fire.
Still putting out the fire.

And the fire was brought under control.
And the fire was brought under control.

Elyse got a video of the fire:

The left front tire blows up at the thirty second mark, and you can also hear the airbags and various other things pop shortly thereafter.  The fire department is on scene at about 1:45, and they start hosing it down at around 3:30.  By the end of the video, it was mostly out, and they were working on hot spots.

When the fire department arrived, they offered for us to wait in the ambulance in order to keep warm.  After the fire was out, we took them up on the offer.  We also gave statements to a police officer on scene.  Elyse called her parents and made arrangements with them for us to get picked up, and then we waited in the ambulance for the tow truck to arrive.  The police officer told me that the car was totaled, to which I responded, with a slight chuckle, “I could have told you that!”

When the tow truck arrived, we saw the aftermath:

The remains of my Kia Soul, viewed from the front.  The fire had turned my green car white.

The remains of my Kia Soul, viewed from the front.  The fire had turned my green car white.
The remains of my Kia Soul, viewed from the front.  The fire had turned my green car white.

The rear of my car following the fire.
The rear of my car following the fire.

The front seats.  The interior was completely burned out.  Scary to think that Elyse and I had been sitting in these seats less than an hour earlier.
The front seats.  The interior was completely burned out.  Scary to think that Elyse and I had been sitting in these seats less than an hour earlier.

Debris that melted off of the front of the car.  This is the front bumper, the grille, the headlights, and various other things.  Pretty sure that the front license plate was in there as well.  You can see part of the radiator sitting on top.
Debris that melted off of the front of the car.  This is the front bumper, the grille, the headlights, and various other things.  Pretty sure that the front license plate was in there as well.  You can see part of the radiator sitting on top.

Loading the car onto the tow truck.  It was being taken to Terry's Body Shop in Purcellville.  That was a sad moment for me, because I knew that it was the last time that I would ever see my car.  And truthfully, that was fine - I never want to see the little fireball on wheels again.
Loading the car onto the tow truck.  It was being taken to Terry’s Body Shop in Purcellville.  That was a sad moment for me, because I knew that it was the last time that I would ever see my car.  And truthfully, that was fine – I never want to see the little fireball on wheels again.

A firefighter uses a shovel to scrape the debris from the fire off of the road, so that the road could reopen.
A firefighter uses a shovel to scrape the debris from the fire off of the road, so that the road could reopen.

And that was that.  The tow truck left with the car, the fire trucks left, and the police officer reopened the road.  As each unit left, I made sure to thank them for their help.  Elyse and I were waiting in the ambulance while they determined a safe place for us to wait to be picked up by Elyse’s father, who was en route.  The plan was to take us to a nearby Gulf station, but they were closing in five minutes.  We then waited in the ambulance outside the fire department while they called in to get permission to let us wait inside there.  They couldn’t get hold of their people in reasonable time, so they looked to see if the next gas station, a Valero station, was open.  They were closed as well.  Then we found out that Elyse’s father was nearby (he had actually passed us without realizing it), and we quickly arranged to meet up with him at the Gulf station.

You don’t know how delighted I was to see him, because it meant that the whole ordeal would be over soon.  We were going home.  We thanked the ambulance crew, and got in the car.  On the way home, I was filing the insurance claim on Progressive’s app, and I also looked at social media to see if there was anything about our incident other than the photos that I posted.  I found these on the Twitter:

Tweets about the fire

I’ve seen many traffic alerts on social media over the years, but it was kind of surreal to see this and realize that they were talking about me.

Then when we got home, we immediately went to work getting rid of the smoke smell that was on everything.  We both took showers, and I ran a load of laundry that night to get the smell out of our clothes.  Taking the shower, and then putting something comfortable on afterward was very calming.  It was a reassurance that everything would be fine, and life would go on.

I’m not going to comment on the cause of the fire at this time, because the insurance company is still conducting its investigation into the matter, though I certainly have my own thoughts as to the cause.  We’ll revisit that matter once the cause is formally determined, and we’ll see if my theory is correct.

Taking the fire as a given, though, I’m glad that it happened when and where it did.  I knew that there was a gas station not far up the road from our location, and that was the safe place that I was intending to take the car in order to call for a tow truck.  Imagine if I had made it to the gas station, and the fire happened there.  We would have been sitting on top of, or at least in very close proximity to, tens of thousands of gallons of fuel.  That could have been a major disaster if the fuel had caught fire, as there was a small trailer park located behind the gas station, as well as other structures nearby.  Since we didn’t make it there, and there was nothing around us, the worst that could have happened is that the fire would have burned itself out.  Similarly, it happened on a rural road in Loudoun County rather than a more populated area.  In other words, we didn’t screw up traffic that badly, though we certainly did cause a backup.  Then I’m also glad that we had dropped everyone off before it happened.  I’m glad that Trent and Jackson were both gone when the fire happened, because that’s fewer people to need to escape.  Plus the logistics of getting back to our various homes would have been more complicated, because Trent lives in DC and Jackson was staying in Leesburg.  Elyse and I live together, so getting us home was pretty straightforward.

Meanwhile, you would expect that something like a car fire would be a very scary situation.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t.  The whole thing happened so quickly that we didn’t even have time to be scared.  We saw the fire ignite under the engine compartment, and we just reacted.  I immediately stopped the car, and we got away.  It’s not like you see on television, which is designed for maximum drama.  Nobody was scared in the moment.  Seriously, it happened that quickly.  It was worse after it was over, once the adrenaline started to wear off, as only then did the realization of what happened sink in, i.e. that we had just escaped a big fire that could have ended much worse, that my car was gone, and that I now had a lot of things to sort through related to what had just happened.

These two photos that Jackson took in the car earlier in the day – one of me driving, and one of Trent – also made me think quite a bit.

Photo: Jackson Slater

Photo: Jackson Slater

It’s kind of surreal.  None of us knew that the car was essentially a ticking time bomb and would not survive the day, nor did we think that these would be the last photos ever taken of my car fully intact.  It also made me upset that I, unknowingly, endangered all of our lives by driving around in a vehicle that was about to catch fire.  None of us ever expected that the car would have caught fire, nor did we have any way of knowing what would happen, but it nonetheless upsets me.  It’s like an adventure game that is put in an unwinnable state.  The game won’t tell you right away that you can’t win when you forgot something or took an action that has consequences later on, but then eventually, it all comes to this:

"We're glad you could play Space Quest IV. As usual, you've been a real pantload."

That’s how I felt, rightly or not, after everything was over, i.e. that I had been going around all day with the “game” in an unwinnable state.  And in the end, Gary Owens was calling me a pantload.

My next day at work after the fire was Friday, and I was in a surprisingly good mood – the kind of good mood that you’re in on the first day back from a vacation.  I typically don’t look forward to my Fridays because I do three round trips instead of two, and that makes for a rather long day.  That Friday was one of the easiest days that I’d had in a long time.  I suppose that an event like a car fire puts things into perspective, and that three round trips behind a train console isn’t that bad compared to the alternative.

And now, all we have left of the Soul are the memories.

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That point where you’ve turned a corner on getting settled… Fri, 26 Jan 2018 19:27:51 +0000 Slowly but surely, this house is coming together.  Old furniture is in place.  New furniture is acquired and in place.  Various other little flub-dubs have been purchased and placed.  And I have a dust mop.  You know that you’re mature when you’re excited about buying a dust mop.

But in any case, it’s starting to look like Elyse and I live there.  My bedroom, for instance, is more or less complete:

My bedroom, with bed, nightstands, lamps, and curtains.
My bedroom, with bed, nightstands, lamps, and curtains.

Same setting, viewed from the mezzanine.
Same setting, viewed from the mezzanine.

I am particularly proud of the curtains.  When I first saw the house back in July, there were 84-inch gray curtains on the windows.  Those curtains touched the floor, which I didn’t like.  When I went shopping for curtains, all that I could find were 63-inch curtains, and 84-inch curtains.  63-inch curtains would cut right at the bottom of the window, and 84-inch would have touched the floor again.  I found 72-inch curtains, which were the perfect length, plus they matched the comforter on the bed.  They’re also blackout curtains, which means that if I really wanted to, I could keep the sunlight out, but the double window directly above, across from the mezzanine, as well as the skylight in the mezzanine, makes that an exercise in futility.  But that’s okay, because I just wanted something to complete the setting, and for that, it works perfectly.  Along with Elyse’s room, it’s the only room with any sort of curtains.  I’m not planning on painting my bedroom, so all that’s left to do in here is wallhangings, and perhaps also an area rug.

Meanwhile, Elyse and I accomplished this in the back bedroom over the course of about two nights:

The home library is complete.
The home library is complete.

This worked out more or less perfectly.  When I was mentally furnishing the house while everything was still going through, I knew that I wanted the bookshelves upstairs, but I didn’t quite know how I wanted them to be placed.  Then on moving day, the movers plopped them against the east wall, side by side.  It was perfect, and so I left them that way.  All that I had to do was relevel them and load them.  The strategy here was to have books ring the outside, and then put trinkets on the inside.  The shelves containing books look perfect, but the shelves with trinkets look a little crowded.  I think I’m going to put some things on top of the shelves, in order to add some character to the top, as well as make things look a little less crowded down below.

I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of the back bedroom is, though.  There are currently no furnishings in it other than the bookshelves, and no area rug.  Elyse and I both have our bedrooms, the mezzanine is my office/den, and the living room is the living room.  The impetus for finishing the back bedroom was so that we could blow up the air mattress for an overnight guest so that we didn’t have to put them in the living room,  The air mattress fits in there perfectly, so that certainly works.  That said, I need to keep the space open so that I can blow up the air mattress for guests without having to completely dismantle the room whenever guests come over, but I suppose that we’ll see what happens with it.  Seeing that nature abhors a vacuum, I don’t want it to become a junk room, so we’ll see.

Then I also bid farewell to my old torchiere lamps:

The lamps, at the Habitat for Humanity store in Silver Spring

I never thought that I would get rid of these, but they really had no place anywhere in the house.  I have more ceiling lighting here, and I also couldn’t mentally place them anywhere that would work.  So, having outlived their usefulness, they’re gone.  I remember how excited I was to get them back in 2004 when I redecorated my old bedroom at my parents’ house, but what 22-year-old me thought was perfect is what 36-year-old me says no longer has any place.  So I donated them to Habitat for Humanity, at the ReStore location off of Cherry Hill Road in Silver Spring.

That worked out surprisingly well, because as luck would have it, we came across something that was incredibly useful.  The original plan that day was to drop off the lamps at Habitat, and then head over to IKEA, armed with a $25 off of $250 coupon, in order to purchase an armchair for the living room.  But Elyse wanted to look at the Habitat store while we were there, and I didn’t.  Considering that she’d eaten before we left the house and I hadn’t, that worked out well enough.  I went across the street to get lunch while she looked at the Habitat store.  Then I got a text message from Elyse while I was eating, that the Habitat store had a tan Ektorp armchair in tan on the salesfloor.  Ektorp was one of the styles that I had in mind from the outset, along with a Strandmon wing chair.  Once I finished eating, I came over and realized that it was in new condition, and the price was unbeatable.  But would it fit my car?  A quick measurement of my car’s back opening revealed that it was 36″ x 28″.  We took the legs off the chair, and it went right in.  Score!  I ended up paying $74 for a $319 chair.  I could handle that.  And it looks perfect in the living room:

The Ektorp armchair harmonizes perfectly with my Friheten couch.
The Ektorp armchair harmonizes perfectly with my Friheten couch.

And as you can see, part of the living room is still in an incomplete state.  The problem is that the dining part of the living room has been partly cannibalized for use in the kitchen so that I can use the breakfast bar:

Those chairs are the wrong height for the breakfast bar, but they work as an interim solution until I get real counter-height chairs.  Those are on their way, and it’s going to be these:

I ended up getting two of these from Zadia Wood Center in Rockville, and will stain them to match the cabinets.  They’ll be here in six to eight weeks.  Then the dining set will come together.

So all in all, this house is slowly but surely becoming a home.

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When you realize that the unbalanced nature of the electoral college is a symptom, and not the problem… Sat, 13 Jan 2018 21:38:24 +0000 With the recent talk about a potential Oprah Winfrey run for president, I started thinking again about how to fix our unbalanced electoral system, and the least difficult way to do it.

But first, since I mentioned it, just to eliminate all doubt: Oprah Winfrey should not run for president, at least not right now, for the same reason that Donald Trump was not qualified for the job, i.e. no experience in public service.  If Oprah wants to run for president, she should do like most presidents have done, and run for a local office and start a proper public service career.  Even Ronald Reagan, who was an actor prior to entering politics, was governor of California before he was president.  A career in public service prior to running for the top spot shows that you’re serious.  I’m sure that Oprah would make a pretty good Chicago alderman as a first step, and then on to a state legislature or Congress.  Governor of Illinois, maybe not, because most Illinois governors go to jail after leaving office, it seems.  But in any case, if you’re serious, and not just doing it for attention, you go through the proper channels.  We want to leave Trump as a fluke, and not make this whole TV-personalities-as-president-with-no-public-service thing a trend.

Of course, the whole reason that we ended up with Trump in the first place is because we have a very unbalanced electoral college system.  After all, more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, but because of the unbalanced nature of it all, it tipped toward Donald Trump.  Because its votes are allocated based on the amount of representatives and senators, it skews in favor of states with low population.  According to this map by Slate, the top three most powerful votes are found in Wyoming, Vermont, and the District of Columbia.  The bottom three are California, Florida, and New York.  In other words, the most populous states have the least voice per capita in determining who becomes the prez.

Back in 2016, when I wrote my election postmortem entry, I suggested the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact as a suitable solution for the electoral college.  I am no longer sure that the compact is the best solution to the electoral system’s woes.  I feel like that just puts a patch over the real problem: Congress.  Since 1913, the House of Representatives has contained 435 members, and the size was fixed at that amount in 1929 due to concerns over the House chamber’s capacity.  Therefore, since then, any reapportionment of seats has been a matter of rearranging the same 435 seats, meaning that if one state gains a seat during a reapportionment, another state has to lose one.  There is no allowance for growth in population – just comparative sizes.  And the population has grown considerably since then.  The 1920 census, which was the most recent when the 1929 act was passed, listed the country’s population as 106 million.  We’re now at 308 million as of the 2010 census, i.e. the population has roughly tripled since 1920.  But we still have the same 435 representatives.  Going strictly on numbers, 435 representatives into the 1920 population of 106,021,537 comes out to approximately one representative for every 243,727 people.  Today, using the 2010 number of 308,745,539, it comes out to approximately one representative for every 709,759 people.  This does not take state boundaries into consideration, since you can’t, for instance, take some of Montana and lump it in with Wyoming as far as representation goes.  That all figures into how Congress breaks out, and it creates some unevenness.

The solution, as I see it, is to lift the 435-member limit, and apportion representatives based on a designated amount of people, give or take (it’s never going to be perfectly exact due to state boundaries’ dictating certain limits).  I believe that communications technology now in common use obviates the need to limit the amount of representatives to what will fit in the House chamber.  We already have cameras in the chamber for C-SPAN, so what’s to stop Congress from using videoconferencing technology to bring the membership together at multiple sites, especially when, ever since the 1970s, voting is already done electronically?  One could have the main House chamber in the Capitol, and then have one or more satellite chambers elsewhere in the city (or in the suburbs), as necessary.

The big question, therefore, is how many people should there be per representative.  According to Federalist 55, the intent was to have one representative per 30,000 people.  Going with the 2010 population number, that works out to approximately 10,291 representatives.  My gut feeling is that having that many representatives seems excessive, though it would be very representative.  Hell, you could fit your entire district’s population inside certain large sporting venues.  By that number, Wyoming, the lowest-populated state, would have approximately 19 representatives, and California, the highest-populated state, would have 1,241 representatives.  Going with 200,000 people per representative, a number much closer to what it comes to for the 1920 census, you would end up with approximately 1,543 representatives total.  That would give Wyoming three representatives, and would give California 186 representatives.  And that’s not that bad.  And I figure, with that many representatives, you could house them in NoMa, which seems to be teeming with empty office buildings.  Do some buildouts and stash a few hundred congressmen in there.

Having so many representatives will also limit the impact of gerrymandering, if you can only put so many people in a district.  Since I moved to Montgomery Village back in November, I’m in Maryland’s 6th District, which is a fairly ridiculous district, though by no means the worst in Maryland.  The district encompasses all of western Maryland up to approximately South Mountain, and then turns southeast, with something of a neck through part of Frederick County, and then a bulb encompassing most of western Montgomery County.  My representative is John Delaney, who is from MoCo.  Like he really understands what’s going on out in Cumberland.  At one representative for 200,000 people, Maryland, with a 2010 census population of 5,773,552, would have approximately 29 representatives, and that would almost mandate more compact districts than the way that they snake around the state right now.

And then with more representatives in the House, the electoral college will mostly sort itself out, when you get the districts more in line with population, and not just rearranging the same number of seats over and over again based on population shifts.  The only other thing that I would do would be with a newly enlarged electoral college, would be nationwide adoption of the Maine/Nebraska allocation method, i.e. allocate electoral votes by congressional district, with two at-large electoral votes for the senators, and not have a winner-take-all for each state.  Therefore, if your district of 200,000 votes for a Republican, that’s what your electoral vote is cast as.  If your district votes Democratic, then that’s what it goes as.  If your district voted for Evan McMullin, then so be it.

And it just takes the passage of a single law to enact, rather than getting many states to agree on something that might be ruled unconstitutional, like the compact.  Is it likely to happen?  No – because no one wants to give up power.  But it should happen, but it would take a lot of political fortitude to make it happen.

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Now to build on the successes of the past year… Thu, 04 Jan 2018 02:37:21 +0000 A new year always brings a lot of feelings.  It’s a time to reflect on the past year, and a time to look ahead to the year ahead.  Reflecting back on 2017, I’d say that I had an outstanding year, and laid the groundwork for a strong future.  After all, at the beginning of 2017, I was still relatively new at the whole train operations thing, and lived by myself in an apartment with a hostile relationship with the property management.  Now, I’m more experienced with my work and more comfortable with all of the ins and outs of my job, and I’m also a homeowner with a roommate.  I made my first mortgage payment at the end of December.  Things suddenly became very real when I wrote that check.

Now, in 2018, I want to build on my successes from the past year and reach even greater heights.  After all, in 2017, I got the house.  Now, I want to make it my home, and not someone else’s idea of a home with my furniture sitting in it.  That means getting rid of that chandelier in Elyse’s room, painting a few rooms, and getting my wallhangings up.  I’m excited to design the new decor, because I have so many blank canvases upon which to expend some pent-up creative energies.  My parents are delighted about this as well, because I’d been fantasizing out loud about redecorating their house for a few years in order to expend those creative energies that I couldn’t do with the apartment, but they were a bit cool to the idea.  Now I have my own place to paint and decorate as I wish.  The previous owner of my house decorated the place fairly minimalistically, using pale colors on walls and few wallhangings and furnishings, such as in the living room:

My living room during the showing

My living room during the showing

What is now Elyse’s room was designed fairly well by the previous owner, with muted colors throughout.  Take a look:

What is now Elyse's room, during the showing

In other words, the chandelier, for which Elyse and I have both expressed our dislike, worked with the old decor.  However, without the matching furniture and wallhangings, it looks out of place, plus the trim color doesn’t match the rest of the house.  My coworkers have suggested that I paint the chandelier black, but I think I can do better selling it and replacing it with a much smaller fixture.

I have yet to design my interiors (there are still things that need to be unpacked, and that should take precedence), but that’s all something to consider when I start designing.  I’m planning to put more hardware on the living room walls than the previous owner did, and then Elyse’s room is getting a new light fixture and new paint.  What all of that will look like is still up in the air.  It took me seven years to finally get around to decorating the apartment.  On that timeframe now, it would mean that I would live around plain walls until I’m 43.  I will decorate well before that, but what it will look like is still to be determined.

I also like the way that my career is moving as we enter 2018.  I worked overtime on New Year’s Eve, and that was enjoyable enough, getting a few hours’ worth of extra money for playing with trains, and helping keep people who have no business driving after a night of revelry off of the roads.  So I got the new year off to a good start there.  I also get the feeling that some of my colleagues view me as something of a rising star, because I get a lot of suggestions that I try various higher positions.  My usual response is, “In time.”  It’s not no, just not now.  I have fun in my work, and I want to continue onward and upward, but I also feel that it’s important to pace myself.  I have an entire career ahead of me, during which time I want to move all around and “do everything”, but I fear that if I move too quickly, I’ll experience burnout and be unhappy.  Therefore, I am fully willing to take it slowly.

Compare this to when I worked at Walmart, when my coworkers questioned why I even worked there at all.  Admittedly, I was overqualified for Walmart, but at the same time, fresh out of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and Walmart made a little (very little) money while I figured it out.  Then at Food & Water Watch, I don’t really recall much discussion about career progression.  You were basically there until you found your next job.  There was no advancement there.  You were what they hired you as, and that was all you ever would be with them.  Food & Water Watch and New Year’s Eve come together in 2013.  I remember watching the ball drop to ring in 2013 at my parents’ house that year, and I just couldn’t dismiss a nagging thought that 2013 would probably be my last there.  Turned out that I was right, but this was before things really went sour there.  Leaving turned out to be a good thing in the end.  It also dovetailed nicely with something else that happened around the same time: my leaving Wikipedia for good.  I was so done with Wikipedia that it wasn’t even funny.  That was an extremely toxic environment, where I received abuse from far too many people for ridiculous reasons, and I wasn’t getting paid for that.  When you’re volunteering and getting mistreated on a routine basis, the hell with it, as far as I’m concerned.  All in all, 2012-2013 ended up being a purge of a lot of negativity in my life, although it’s not what I consciously set out to do.  But if it tells you anything, I was happier unemployed than I was working at Food & Water Watch, even though unemployment, and living off of savings, was a stressful situation in its own right.

In any case, I’m glad that my career is on the up-and-up, and I look forward to further milestones in the new year.

Meanwhile, I also want to put a renewed focus on this site in 2018.  Simply put, the website needs some more love.  The move to Montgomery Village caused a backlog in my photo work, and that’s understandable.  I’m also planning a photo set about house hunting, moving, and getting settled, which is why there haven’t been many posts about the house – because I’ve been sitting on it with the intent of doing a bigger treatment of the whole process.  Also look for a “postmortem” of sorts about my old apartment after the security deposit comes back.  I’m also planning on doing a compilation photo set for 2017 in Life and Times, since there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t get a chance to discuss on the fly throughout the year.  I’m also planning to turn a lot of my photos from October in Ocean City into a Photography set.

Additionally, the site’s design is now around five years old, and probably needs a refresh.  I want a responsive design for my next major site iteration, but I have no idea how to do it.  So I have my work cut out for me there, as I want the site to look awesome no matter the screen size, and not like this:

So much wasted/unused space, though I admit that this is much wider than your typical monitor.
So much wasted/unused space, though I admit that this is much wider than your typical monitor.

I also have no idea what I want the next design of the site to look like yet, so there’s that to consider as well.

Then I also have the Today’s Special project, i.e. “Project TXL”, which is very much a work in progress.  I’m working through the series in order, and I’ve completed through “Building“.  That means that out of 121 episodes, I’m about a quarter of the way there.  Studying the show so deeply has given me a new appreciation for the development of the series.  In other words, it’s been a lot of fun.

So all in all, I am positioned for success in the new year, and I’m probably in a better position at the start of 2018 than I’ve been in a long time (or ever).  I’m excited to see what happens over the next year, and am hopeful for continued success.

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“Crisp bacon strips, sliced French bread, hot cheesy sauce, on a plate full of macaroni!” Mon, 25 Dec 2017 15:14:03 +0000 For the last several years, I’ve made it something of a tradition of watching the Today’s Special episodes “Christmas Part 1” and “Christmas Part 2” on or around Christmas Eve.  It only makes sense to me.  Most Christmas specials are awful, but Today’s Special‘s two Christmas episodes are outside of that mold, taking the same care with Christmas that they do when discussing the night or feelings.  The end result is a timeless story that still leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy inside after all these years.

This year, I decided to take a minor element from those episodes and bring it into real life.  Across the two episodes, they sing their own variation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” using food.  It starts out early when Sam sings, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a plate full of macaroni!”  Then Muffy later adds, “Hot cheesy sauce on my plate full of macaroni!”  Near the end of the second episode, it takes its full form:

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me crisp bacon strips, sliced French bread, hot cheesy sauce, on a plate full of macaroni!

So on Friday evening, I went to the grocery store after work and bought this:

Pasta, generic Velveeta, bread, and bacon.
Pasta, generic Velveeta, bread, and bacon.

And then the next day, I went to town with all of this on my new electric stove to make a Christmas meal for Elyse and myself.  Boil and drain the pasta.  Slice the bread.  Put the cheese in a pot with some milk and cook it.  And throw some bacon in the skillet.  I suppose that this is a lesson in the shortcomings of “real men don’t need instructions”.  I was flying by the seat of my pants here, and the result demonstrated my level of experience in preparing certain items.  I have lots of experience with cooking pasta, so that came out perfecty.  Then this was my cheese sauce:

Burnt cheese sauce

It looks nice and all, but unfortunately, I burned it.  I didn’t know that it was possible to burn cheese sauce, but burn it I did.  I learned after the fact that you’re supposed to cook these sorts of things “low and slow” because otherwise, you’ll burn it.  I cooked it on high due on account of not knowing any better, and the rest was history.  The flavor was a combination of Velveeta and “burnt”.  Apparently, the answer to, “Is burnt a flavor?” is yes, because that’s the flavor that my cheese sauce was.

French bread, meanwhile, is pretty hard to screw up.  The bread was already made, so all I had to do was slice it up with a bread knife.  Done.

Then there was the bacon.  Elyse absolutely wouldn’t let me get microwave bacon (read: she wouldn’t let me cheat), and so I bought real bacon and had to cook it.  I didn’t know exactly how long to cook bacon, and was concerned about undercooking it.  Nothing like having eaten something that doesn’t agree on account of its being undercooked, and then calling to be relieved for a “personal” (i.e. a restroom break) while you’re operating a subway train.  So in the end, you guessed it – I ended up burning the bacon, too, out of fear of undercooking it.  I don’t believe that bacon is supposed to break apart in a brittle manner when you touch it with a fork.  However, no one got food poisoning from undercooked bacon on account of me, so I suppose that I was successful in that regard.

And this was the final result:

Crisp bacon strips, sliced French bread, hot cheesy sauce, on a plate full of macaroni, indeed.  And then with the meal prepared, I turned on the entertainment:

"It's Christmas Eve tonight..."
“It’s Christmas Eve tonight…”

And then when the episode was over and the meal concluded, the smell of burnt food lingered in the air.  Food can be petty like that.  You burn a couple of things, and then rather than forgive you for your transgressions and produce the beautiful smell of a freshly made meal, all you can smell is the thing that you burned, as if the food is punishing you for burning some of it.  Stupid food.

All in all, though, I think that this was a good plan, even if the execution wasn’t exactly spot on.  This was a good starting point, and I can improve on this next time.  I have more bacon to practice cooking with, and so maybe I’ll get it right next time there rather than burning it.  Likewise, I now know to slow down with the cheese sauce, so as not to burn it in the future.  I also think I overdid the macaroni.  I took the song literally, i.e. “a plate full of macaroni,” and so I filled the plates.  Pasta can be deceiving when you’re figuring out how much to use.  I think I served up too much macaroni, and so I will use less next time.

In any case, season’s greetings to all, and now I have to swim all of those carbs off.

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Apparently, Sam Crenshaw is an Ottawa Senators fan… Mon, 18 Dec 2017 17:47:42 +0000 Sometimes, you never know what you’ll find online.  Check this out:

I never would have guessed that Sam Crenshaw was an Ottawa Senators fan, would you?  I figured that he would have been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, considering that Sam was a big fan of the original Toronto Blizzard soccer team back in the 1980s.  Recall that he briefly played as a goalie during one of the Blizzard’s practices, much to his friend Jodie’s astonishment.

Meanwhile, it’s funny how I ran across this clip.  I don’t remember what prompted it, but I was digging through YouTube on my phone last night, trying to find a clip of Atlanta-area sportscaster Sam Crenshaw to show Elyse, when I encountered this video.  Ask Elyse – I was completely and totally blown away upon this discovery, watching it over and over again in order to completely wrap my mind around it.  “Did Sam really just say ‘kick butt’?”  (Yes, he did.)  And Sam is still a gentleman, rocking the white shirt and bow tie after all of these years.  I wonder what happened to Sam’s nose, though.  In any case, he looks good for 97 years old.  And I’m glad that Bob Dermer is still having fun with Sam as well.

And the Ottawa Senators appear to have done fairly well that season, coming in second place in their division, and making it to the conference finals in the playoffs.  Never underestimate the power of a few words of inspiration from Sam Crenshaw, I suppose.

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