ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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born between fire
june 1, 2004
The thing about owning a home is, something always goes wrong.
A dust-covered air-conditioning system in your attic suddenly decides, deep within its rectangular aluminum brain, to blow a fuse; a pipe behind a wall hung with a photograph of you waving happily from a seashore starts, at an elbowy joint, to drip; a beam of wood spanning your living room ceiling feels the vibrating tickle of a termite's jaws and decides, Hey, it's not so bad.
And whenever one of these disasters happens, you're your own landlord.
If a toilet starts dribbling after the flush has finished, you either have to repair it yourself, putting your hands down into the cool waters of the toilet tank, fingers like scuba divers testing ball cock connections, or hire someone to fix it for you.
Over the years, we've gotten pretty good at doing most work ourselves. If your sink is clogged, your dishwasher is leaving little specks on your plates and glasses, or you need an electrical outlet rewired, I'm your guy.
One thing we knew we needed to do, and knew it a few years ago, was have the outside of our house repainted.
We have a two-story red brick house with white trim. We choose that color combination because it's a classic look, unlikely to go out of style.
But a while back, dozens of moons ago, we realized the paint on the trim was starting to flake and peel.
It didn't look good.
We talked about getting the trim repainted, even mentioned it occasionally to our neighbors, much as they would say they were thinking of getting their house repainted, but we always put it off because we had absolutely no idea whatsoever how much it would cost, other than that it would probably be really expensive. I hate writing big checks. Filling out a check for $39.42 is a breeze, there's even a carefree sportiness to the way I swoop a horizontal line of blue ink from the written dollar amount all the way over to the right, where I add the cents amount as a fraction, but when the written dollar amount marches across the line, to where you can barely squeeze in the cents, it's like bleeding a large pool of blood across shoe-scuffed pavement.
Because getting your house painted is much more complicated then just someone up on a ladder slapping paint on wood. They have to power scrub the trim, to blast off any loose bits, check for mildew and black mold, recaulk the hundreds of joints, replace any wood that's gone bad, then paint, then paint again. Plus they have to eat, use the bathroom a couple of times, take calls from their spouses, scratch their mosquito bites, most of them around their waistbands, during the whole up and down the rungs process.
Although we've painted rooms inside our home, with fairly tall cathedral ceilings, I didn't feel comfortable with us painting the exterior.
For one thing, we're not professionals. We don't have the equipment needed to power scrub, and although I understand the concept of caulking, I'm not as good at it as someone who caulks for a living. Much like the most important element to assure the long life of your car is engine oil, the most important element to preserve your home is weather-proofing. The biggest enemy of houses is moisture.
So we finally broke down and I called a housepainter from the yellow pages. He had a big ad, he was affiliated with a national company, he had a website.
He came out the next day, a pleasant, professional man in a dark suit, with a soft Jamaican accent.
The three of us walked around our home, him looking up at the wood. "For thirteen years without painting, your home is in remarkably good shape. You are very lucky people! You should fly to Las Vegas."
After we completed the circuit, he retired to his truck, where we knew all sorts of mysterious calculations would take place.
Mary and I waited at our breakfast nook table. How much would it cost? We knew people who had their homes repainted, and it cost them fourteen to seventeen thousand dollars, but their homes were all wood, and they hadn't painted in a generation.
He left us with a loose-leaf binder that included one-page assessments from previous homeowners about their paint job, with rankings rated from one to five stars. Almost all of them were five stars. Some had inked-in six stars. One had ranked them at two stars, mentioning the names of two painters they felt were lazy and who had trampled a lot of their flower beds. He explained to us, "I include all the reviews, even this unfavorable one, but I fired these two gentlemen right after this review."
We tried to guess how much his quote would be. I thought around fifteen hundred, since it was just trim. If it's more than that, we'd go through the misery of bringing someone else out for an estimate.
Mary thought it should cost about the same amount.
We agreed, husband and wife, that if it cost eighteen hundred, we'd go for it. We wanted our house painted.
The contractor knocked on our front door. We ushered him in, sat him at the breakfast nook table.
He had a contract in front of him, but I couldn't see the price.
He started going into all the services his painters would perform for us.
"All of this is build-up to showing us the price, right?"
"Yes, well, it is." He swung the contact around. To paint all the trim, with everything that entailed, and restain our front door, was eighteen hundred dollars. Mary and I glanced silently at each other. I signed the contract.
This was on a Tuesday.
They came out that Friday, the tall foreman ringing our front door bell to introduce himself, then they went around our house, for about two hours, power-spraying. We kept the mini-blinds drawn, for privacy. The cats went crazy, ears flattened, jerking their heads around at the surrounding windows.
After the crew left, at five, we ventured outside, a cold beer in our hands, surveying the results.
There were a lot of gray decorations in the white of our trim, where peeled paint had been blasted away.
Monday morning, nine o'clock, a crew of four showed up to paint.
We heard the foreman on his portable phone at one point, mid-day, with the raised voice people used two generations ago on trans-atlantic calls, summoning a local carpenter to pull two boards off the frame of our back door, and replace them.
Throughout the day, while we stayed inside, blinds drawn, we heard them moving unseen around the outside of our home, making noise. It was a little like Night of the Living Dead, except that instead of having rocks in their hands, they had paint brushes.
Around five, the Jamaican business owner showed up, in blue jeans this time, to walk us around the house.
Because our house hadn't been painted in thirteen years, the trim had gotten a bit weathered, creases in the wood.
We felt the creases hadn't received enough paint, even after two coats, to restore them to a brilliant finish.
I pointed this out to the business owner, as we made a circuit of the house. He called over the foreman, telling him to put a third coat on some sections.
Around six, the foreman knocked on our back door, so odd to hear a knock there, asking me to sign off on their job, and write out a check for the eighteen hundred. Rather than doing that, I went back outside with him, inspecting the work his crew had done, and still wasn't satisfied with some sections. I pointed out where even a fourth coat was needed.
He bent his head. "Our standard procedure is to get the paint in at least three millimeters. A lot of the trim here, we got it in six millimeters."
That's the big con with contractors. They tell you what their standard is, some technical-sounding bullshit, and how they exceeded their standard for you. Which means shit. Either they met your expectations, or they didn't. How good a job is, is decided by the person paying, not the person being paid.
I touched his shoulder. Sometimes, to defeat them, you have to touch them. "Respectfully, three millimeters, six millimeters, a hundred millimeters, it really doesn't mean anything to me. All I care about is whether our home looks newly painted."
He had his crew get back up on the ladders and our rooftops, painting some more.
They finished around seven o'clock that night.
We went out afterwards to look at the job, necks craning back.
Was it perfect?
Of course not.
There were some minor stretches of trim that could have used even another coat, and some sections of roof where the white mist from their sprayers left a ghostly imprint.
But overall, it was a excellent job, much, much better than what they first showed us.
Which is an important lesson I constantly relearn. Money doesn't buy satisfaction. It just buys attendance. The rest is still up to you.
I had a dream the other night, the type of dream where you wake up in the middle of it, fall back asleep, and the dream continues.
Mary and I were out in California, where we met twenty years ago, but hadn't been back to in fifteen years, to attend a taping of the Judge Judy show.
To those of you who don't know, Judge Judy is a daily half hour syndicated show where Judy, a woman who looks to be in her sixties, hears various small claims court cases, usually two in each half hour.
She's known for her abrasive manner, screaming at litigants, "I don't believe you!"
In my dream, Mary and I were across the street from the studio where her daily show is taped, in the second floor restaurant of a tall, glass-fronted skyscraper, eating sandwiches, when we noticed Judy was sitting right next to us.
She acknowledged our recognition of her with a sharp, black-pupiled eye, and something like a smile.
We talked to her while we finished our sandwiches. She was about the way we thought she would be off-camera, much nicer, but cutting off the ends of our sentences, looking off while she did most of the talking, wrinkles on her face, upwards stretch of a facelift.
As it got closer to the time when she had to go downstairs and across the street for her daily taping, a few fans with placards in the street, I got a little alarmed she'd be late for the taping, there was less than a minute left, but she was dismissive about the impending deadline, waving a small right hand, and in fact didn't rise from her adjacent table to make her way downstairs, across the street, to the TV court set, until there were only thirty seconds left before taping started.
Which is when I woke up.
I lifted my head, groggily checking the time, two something, way too early to make coffee, rolled over, away from the clock.
Fell back asleep.
Mary and I decided there was little point in attending the taping, since we had already spent so much time with Judy behind the scenes.
We decided to go home.
On the way, I got the sense there was something wrong with one of the tires on our Honda CRV.
We pulled into the black parking lot of a store called Al's Tires.
We went inside, expecting to find piles of tires, wall posters showing cut-aways of tires with neat lettering explaining all the different layers put into today's tires to protect against puncture, to grip the road surface during rain storms, to insure optimum fuel performance, but instead the store was filled with normal stuff that was nonetheless weird to find in a tire shop, like ribboned baskets of hard candies, stainless steel pots and pans, PVC garden arbors, some actually nice-looking linen bedsheets, I regret we didn't buy them, they would have looked perfect in our bedroom, but anyway, I button-holed a middle-aged man and asked him where all the tires were.
He flapped a right hand at me. "We couldn't possibly survive if we just sold tires, sir!"
"Okay, well, I didn't know that, but you do still sell tires, right, along with all this other stuff? I mean, you're called Al's Tires."
He made a fussy face. "There may be some behind that corner. I don't know. I'm in housewares."
So Mary and I turned the corner, and there were in fact some tires there, but instead of being hard and round, they were all floppy, like Salvador Dali timepieces.
I asked another passing clerk why the tires were so floppy.
He snorted. "Maybe because it's easier storing them that way?"
"Will they function on a car when they're all floppy like that?"
But he was off.
We decided to leave.
Our CRV, for some reason, had been moved to the back of the parking lot. As we walked towards it, wondering how they had started the engine when I had the key in my pants pocket, this short, breezy guy with combed-back black hair, he gave me his name but I didn't quite catch it, but I'm sure it's something like Mike, just like his nickname is probably something like Brooklyn, started striding alongside us.
"You're the folks want the tires, right?"
"I heard about ya. Let's run some tests, shall we?"
And at that point in my dream, I realized this guy appears in almost all my dreams when the scenario requires an auto repairman. And I thought, How weird! Do dreams have bit players who move from dream to dream, throughout our lives? Maybe even into other people's dreams? Is there a stock cast to our dreams? Starring roles going to people we actually know, of course, but the rest of the players, down to the background atmosphere actors, the same dream to dream? Maybe sometimes with a fake handlebar moustache, or a phony Swedish accent?
He strode over to the rear of our CRV. The CRV started bouncing up in the air, jerking forward.
Before our eyes, the CRV folded up, jutted forward, transforming into a golf cart with a little triangular flag sticking up in back, but a golf cart with this large diagnostic machine where a golfer would sit.
We stood beside the golf cart with Mike while the machine talked to itself, checking different systems on our CRV, most of which we had never heard of, saying after each scan, "Checks out. Next system." And so on and so on. Near the end, it said in a robotic voice, "Vehicle needs new tire."
Mike shrugged with his black eyebrows, palms of his hands. "Shall we?"
The golf cart transformed again, this time into an extra-wide shopping cart.
He guided us down the aisles of Al's Tires, past the produce section and DVD display, to a modest table stacked with old-fashioned tires.
"I'd pick this one. Ring it up?"
The extra-wide shopping cart transformed again, this time into a computer running Windows.
And that's when I remembered that that was Bill Gates' original vision: That with Windows, a computer could transform into different machines, all meant to assist us in shopping.
The computer rang up the sale, then transformed back into our CRV, a new tire on the left rear.
We were ready to go home.
I wrote in last month's Lately about our cat Chirper's sudden death.
Since then, we've had all sorts of wildlife show up in our backyard, as if arriving late for his funeral.
Mary and I were sipping coffee in our breakfast nook one morning, when Mary, looking out the wide window, said, "What's that?"
I looked at our middle flower bed, under our huge crepe myrtle, didn't see anything, then saw big shapes moving among our green iris blades. I was initially alarmed, because it looked like huge, slow-moving rats, white faces, black bodies.
The more I looked, the more they shuffled, heads down, out of the jutting blades, I realized they were something else.
Mary banged my upper arm. "Opossums!"
Sure enough, they were.
Two opossums, tipping up onto their back claws to drink water from our bird bath, then bending their white faces to nibble up the dried corn on one of our garden paths. We looked them up on the Internet afterwards. Opossums live for only a year (which made us feel sad), and travel constantly during that year (wouldn't you?). Which meant we probably wouldn't see them again, and indeed, we didn't. But we did go out in our garden and snap a lot of pictures of them. They didn't seem to mind at all. When I got real close to one of them, he or she waddled away, but the other stayed, nibbling.
A few days after that, we were in our bedroom when a bright yellow bird bigger than a pigeon flattened itself against one of our side bedroom windows, wings flapping. It took me a moment to realize it was a parrot, such a remarkably extravagant thing to see right outside our window.
The cats leaped up on the inside sill, mewling like crazy, falling off the sill in excitement.
We went outside.
The parrot fluttered over, lifted itself off the ground into the air, flapping to Mary's fingers.
We gave it some birdseed and water. It methodically tapped-up with its big Lebanese beak all the seed, then gulped down the white ramekin of water.
A few days after that, we were sitting at the rear of our property when I heard a dry rustle in the ground ivy behind us. As typically happens when you see or hear or feel something you don't expect, I ignored it.
A minute later, Mary said, "What is that?"
We twisted our white plastic chairs around.
Something large was flowing through the dark emerald ground ivy, along the bottom of our wood privacy wall.
We stood up, advanced on cautious legs towards the head of the flow. Bent over, peered down.
It was a turtle, about the size of a salad plate, resolutely moving forward towards a rent in the bottom of our wood fence.
Just the evening before, both of us enjoying a beer outside, I had thought to myself how cool it would be if we had a turtle in our backyard, to go with all the other wild life.
We watched it slowly slide over the tipped-down ivy leaves, to the fence's rent.
I finished mowing the front lawn, back of my short-sleeve shirt bearing the insignia of an upside-down triangle of sweat, when I saw a black-feathered grackle swoop past my face, thorny beak separating in mid-air, emitting its characteristic screech.
A cardinal couple built a nest in a rose vine that climbs over the white arbor at the end of our backyard patio.
We'd see her each day fly, with the up and down swimming motion peculiar to cardinals, to the rose tangle of the arbor, a twig in her beak.
Going up on tip toe, sure enough, we could see an elaborately-woven nest within the tangle, the cardinal's wedge-shaped tail sticking out.
After a week, we brought out a black kitchen chair, placed it on the patio, stepped up on the seat, looked down into the bramble of rose branches.
Inside the nest, four blue eggs with dirty brown specks.
A week later, when we got up on the chair, we saw the fledglings, blind eyes, brown bodies, triangular mouths opening to ruby diamonds, demanding food.
A few days after that, during a particularly windy afternoon, we found all four fledglings lying on the path outside the patio, three with weak wings jerking up, mouths gasping for food. The other one was dead.
I picked up the other three, under Mary's guidance, feeling the scratchy panic of their soft limbs, and lifted them back up into the nest.
They're now flying around with their parents (who mate for life, just like opossums) in our backyard garden, evolving into red crests and adulthood.
We were sitting out in our backyard the other evening. I was trying to decide what best conveyed the sense that we were living on a planet that slowly revolves.
I realized clouds wouldn't do it, because although they slowly pass across the sky, they're still relational to Earth.
Then I realized the only reference point we have to our planet's slow revolve each day is the sun.
Although we intellectually understand the Earth revolves around the sun, we still think in terms of sunrises and sunsets. We don't truly appreciate it's not the sun rising and setting- that's just an optical illusion- it's our slice of Earth slowly revolving towards, away from, the constant of the sun.
We live on an immense sphere, stuck to it by our feet.
Let's say you sat in a chair 93 feet from a fire.
Would you see the fire?
Would you feel any of its heat? 93 feet is approximately a third of a football field, so I'd say, probably not. Unless it was a huge fire. Like a forest fire.
Now let's say you were sitting 93 miles from a fire.
I don't think I'd be able to see it, much less feel its heat.
Now let's say you were 93 million miles from the fire.
Could you see it? Yes. It would be so bright, you couldn't look directly at it, without going blind.
If you sat outside for too long, the heat from 93 million miles away would be so intense it would burn your skin, to where you developed cancer.
Can you imagine how immensely huge and intensely hot the sun's fire must be, to blind us and burn us from 93 million miles away?
The surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Is there any heat comparable to the surface of the sun in our solar system?
And it's only about 7,000 miles away.
Under our feet.
The earth's core is about 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
We're born between fire. Fire below us, fire above us, but here, in our garden, sitting under green branches, such a cool, soothing breeze.
Really Scary, a great website for the latest news on horror films, has a feature called Scary Voices, where they invite different horror authors, directors, etc. to write about anything they want. They recently asked me for a column, which appears here.
I've added another food essay to Friends Before Food, this one on breakfasts, called The Most Important Meal of the Day. You can access it here.