Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Civic Duty

Is someone close to you a teacher? Soldier? Social worker? Cop? Librarian? Firefighter? Civil servant? Someone who manages, works with, or supports any of these people? Do your kids go to public schools? Have you ever called the police, taken a bus, mailed a letter, voted, or checked out a book at the library? Do you drive on roads? Do you claim to love America?

If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, then you should be eager to pay your taxes. Paying your taxes is patriotic. They are the dues you pay for living in a democracy.

I always find it ironic when Americans complain about paying taxes. Especially those on the political right who claim to love America. They'll say that America is the greatest country on Earth, but they'll be damned if they have to pay for it.

Why is the government taking MY money? It wouldn't be your money to begin with if the state didn't maintain the infrastructure necessary (education, laws, transportation, protection) for you to earn it. No one lives in a vacuum. It's only "your" money insofar as society allows it. Civilized people understand this. And do their part to support the system.


So, with my attitude that taxes are a good thing, you may understand that after filling out my taxes today, I feel a little guilty.

Due to the first-time homebuyer tax credit this year, I will be getting more money back from the federal government than I paid in taxes. This year, the government is paying me. I am not contributing at all to the federal budget.

I'm feeling a little guilty, but not enough to give any of the money back. I still have a mortgage to pay and home maintenance costs. And there's a reason why the government offered me this credit-- I did contribute to the economy.

It's just weird to me that I'm not contributing to the national budget this year. At least not directly.

It reminds me of the year I spent studying in Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship. At the time, I realized that every cent I'd ever paid in taxes was coming back to me, directly, in the federally funded stipend I got through "Die Kommission" to live there. Yeah, the program promoted peace and understanding among nations, blah blah blah, and I would be a better, informed citizen, yadda, yadda, yadda, but at the time it just felt a little funny to be living off the government like that.
Since that time I have paid the government back, and then some. Although, since I've always worked for libraries and colleges, a lot of my pay has come from a combination of state and local taxes. So there's a complicated formula of where the money has come from and gone to. But I've bought things, like a house, and a car, and stuff to put in my house and car. So where ever my money comes from, I put it back into the economy.

And I don't try to get out of paying my taxes. Because I support my country.


I think it's very telling that when I tried to search for images about the benefits of paying taxes, all I could find was a bunch of cartoons and signs with the same message over and over again: The evil greedy government wants your money so it can waste it. The image of a the tax man holding someone by the ankles and shaking out all their money is the clear winner. I saw at least a dozen different examples of this.

Apparently, my attitude toward paying taxes is a minority one. It's not the first time I've been out of the mainstream. And it probably won't be the last.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lance and Me

Lance Armstrong and I have at least two things in common.

1. We're the same age (he's exactly one week older than me.)
2. We both broke our clavicle last year, at the age of 37.

We have a few differences, too. He broke his clavicle in a bike race. He's won the Tour de France (seven times), survived testicular cancer, and dated Sheryl Crow and Kate Hudson.

I broke my clavicle playing tennis. I've won the Bronze tennis league (once), survived blisters, and dated a bunch of grad students.

But perhaps our most striking difference is how the world reacted to our respective broken clavicles.

A Spanish hamlet erected a monument in the spot where Armstrong crashed his bike and broke his clavicle, with a sign that reads, "La Clavicula de Armstrong."

I'm not holding my breath that the tennis center will do the same for me.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Importance of Being Furnaced

Just this morning I was boasting to someone that, although the temperatures have hovered between 0 and 15 degrees the past week, I haven't really been feeling it. My house must be well-insulated and not very drafty, because the cold has not affected me too much.

My boasting must have angered the snow miser.

I think this story starts with some stains on my bathroom ceiling. I'd noticed some yellowish blotches all over the area above my shower, so I decided to Do Something About It. I bought some bleached-based mold/mildew cleaner and applied it liberally to the affected area. It did a great job of removing the stains, but it also left a strong smell of bleach in my house.

So I opened a window. Sure, it was 15 degrees outside, but I thought if I put a fan in the window, blowing the bleach fumes outside, it wouldn't be so bad. I monitored my indoor digital thermometer, and amazingly, the temperature didn't really fall. After about an hour I closed the window and went about my day.

But about two hours later, I noticed that I was cold. Strange, I thought. I haven't felt cold in this house all day. So I looked at my thermometer. It was at 61.8. Hmm. I'd never seen it that low before. Three hours earlier it had been three degrees warmer. What could the problem be?

I played with my thermostat, trying to hear if the furnace would kick on. It clicked, but didn't "fire up" like I think it's supposed to. I kept putting my hand against the radiator, but since the house uses hot water heat, it's never obvious when it's on. So I waited to see what the temperature would do. It dropped to 61.6.

What do I do? Is the furnace really broken, or is it just resting? The thermometer is right near the window that had been open, so maybe that affected it?

I don't know how opening my window, which I hadn't done all winter, could have affected my furnace, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence that one unprecedented event followed another. This appears to be another case of a weird coincidence throwing me off. I thought the temperature drop was somehow due to opening the window, even though it had happened after I'd closed it.

So it took me a while to accept the fact that something was wrong with my furnace. In the meantime, I considered what my options were if the furnace really was broken.

When I bought my house, the seller threw in a one-year home warranty as part of the contract. The warranty company has very specific instructions-- if you have a problem, call their 24-hour line and they will send someone out to you during "normal business hours." It was an automatic $60 charge to have someone come out. At the time, that seemed expensive. (Little did I know what was to come.) So I wanted to avoid that if I could.
At intervals I would walk over to my furnace and look at it, touch it to see if I felt any warmth, listen for the pilot light, and examine the dials, which made no sense to me. I thought I imagined I smelled gas. But I wasn't sure.

I kept playing with the thermostat and giving myself new deadlines and limits to determine if there was a problem. I'd wait til 5 pm and see if the temperature was still dropping. Or wait til the temp dropped below 60.8. After enough of the these deadlines passed, I finally admitted to myself that Something Was Wrong. I needed to Take Action. But what? Should I call the home warranty company? What if it's something silly, like I blew a fuse, and I have to pay $60 to have some guy come out and laugh at me? (I did try the fuse thing, but what if it's something else that easy that I just don't know about?)

I called my handyman, the guy who had done lots of work on my house already. He told me that furnaces like mine often stop working in frigid weather because ice accumulates in the outside vent and closes it off. I should go outside and remove the ice.

I go outside, with a flashlight because it's dark by now, and look for the vent. I can't find it. It appears that the duct coming out of the furnace goes up, and I notice a chimney on the roof about where it's headed. So I think, "Is the chimney full of ice?" I go up on my ladder and look at the roof. It's covered in snow, and underneath that is ice. I contemplate trying to go up on the roof to check out the chimney, but I reconsider it. I just healed from a broken clavicle-- I'm not going to risk getting hurt again by going up on a slick roof.

I'll call someone to do it for me.

By this time it's nearly 6:00 pm. The temperature in the house has dropped below 60. Outside it's about 12 degrees. I try calling my home warranty company, but I get an automated phone message. I have to go through a complicated menu, and they keep asking me questions about my problem. How do I describe it? Gas furnace? Gas boiler? Water heater? I want to talk to a goddam person! My furnace doesn't work-- I don't know what part!!! When the automated voice asks me if this is a life-threatening emergency, I say no. Because it's not, really. Just house-threatening, since if the pipes freeze and burst, the house is in real trouble.

Plus, all the warranty literature, and the phone recording, keeps saying that someone will contact me during "regular business hours." I know that doesn't include 6 pm on a Sunday. I need this fixed NOW. So I go to the yellow pages and find a heating repair company that has a big "24-Hour Service" ad.

I call them, get an answering service, and someone calls me back in a few minutes. I explain the problem and he says, "I get double time, $182 an hour, and that starts when I leave my house, and ends when I get home. I'll be there in 40 minutes." Then he starts asking me how to get to my place, but I'm still reeling from the quote. Trying to do the math. He lives 40 minutes away? That's an hour and a half of travel time alone! I'm paying almost $300 just to have him come out. But what can I do? I need heat and it's 12 degrees out. I'm totally at his mercy.

About 45 minutes later he shows up at my house and gets to work. I mention the thing about the frozen vent, and he dismisses it, says with my kind of furnace (that goes straight up into a chimney) that's not an issue. He figures out the problem-- a circuit board on the furnace blew a connection. I'll need a new one. He may have one in his shop, but if not, I can decide whether I want to "open the warehouse" tonight, which will be an extra $65. Plus another 30-40 minutes.

If I weren't such a trusting soul, I would think this guy is just gouging me because he can. I keep reminding myself that it's a Sunday night and he has to go out in 10-degree weather to fix people's broken furnaces. I'm paying for his inconvenience. He leaves and calls me from his shop-- of course he doesn't have the part in stock. I guess it's "open the warehouse." What choice do I have? I'm already in for the cost of the visit, and I need it fixed tonight.

As I wait for him to return from "the warehouse," I think about how sucky this is. The timing might suck because it's "double-time" Sunday, but on the other hand, I've been out of town a lot lately. What if this had happened while I was traveling? Would the pipes have frozen? And what about my cats? Would they have survived? It seems that you can always imagine better and worse crises.

By the time the guy had replaced the part and got the furnace working again, it was 57 degrees in the house. That was actually pretty remarkable, considering how cold it was outside. I'd only lost about 7 degrees over five hours. At 8:39 pm, I heard the first ping! of heat running through the radiators again. It was a beautiful sound. Amazingly, it only took an hour to heat the place back up to 66. My house must be well-insulated!

The repair guy left without leaving a bill, saying they would send me one. Based on his estimates, it's at least $600, not including the cost of the part he replaced. All that work I did insulating my attic this fall? Maybe in about five years the energy savings will pay for this one little repair to my furnace.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Inward Bound

Here's the view I woke up to last Thursday. It's not East Central Illinois.

It's Beaver Creek, CO, a ski resort near Vail. This was the late afternoon sun shining on the village. The last day of 2009. That evening you could see fireworks over the peaks, about where that cloud is.

I spent New Year's Eve with my oldest brother's family at his in-laws'.

Ben, Rick, Me, Jonathan. We welcomed in the New Year like good Midwesterners-- playing Euchre.

Susie and I won a close and exciting game at 10:02 MST, right after we watched the ball fall in Time Square.

Jonathan welcomed the new year in the new shirt that his Uncle Dan got him.

On New Year's Day the family went skiing in Vail. Since I was a ski wuss who had hurt my ribs on the "bunny" slopes the day before, I walked around Vail Village and took some pictures.

Vail village, where ski boots are heavy and awkward and everyone walks like zombies.

I was carrying Rick's laptop, and he gave me a walkie-talkie to stay in touch. It helped to accent my terrorist look.

Portrait of a skiing family.

Watching all that skiing was exhausting-- time for the hot tub.


The second half of my trip was spent in Denver. More specifically, the tiny town of Bow Mar (ca. 300 houses.) I got to see all the extremes of the neighborhood-- from the upper middle class "poor" part to the opulent mansions on the top of the hill.

Rick and Susie had just made the transition from one to the other. Through a perfect storm of financial circumstances, they were able to buy one of the nicest houses in the neighborhood, which made them the subject of much gossip among the neighbors. How did THEY get THAT house?!? Their new house felt more like a lodge than a house. I called it the Schreibero Inn.


Dining room. The brown rectangle on the wall is an intricate carving of The Last Supper built into the wall. This is not Susie's favorite feature of the house.

Front door. Notice alcoves built into wall for art.

View from back porch.

Amenities included a built-in trampoline...

...a full half-court basketball net...

...and a shuffle board table in the basement.


But the Schreibero Inn is not free. Rick and Susie had to fix up their old house to sell it. I spent three days helping with little things, like putting in new light switches and outlets.

This was a fitting job, because when I first bought my house last August, the first thing I wanted to do was install new light switches. But I'd just broken my clavicle and couldn't lift my arm to operate a screwdriver, so I had to have my other brother, Dan, come over and help me. So by installing Rick & Susie's switches, I was paying it forward.

Once I got the toolbelt on me, I was hooked. Yeah, I'm a real guy. I install outlets & stuff.

I also helped install a new porch lamp while Rick changed the latch on the front door.

The old, filthy lamp

The new lamp. It works!

My work is done here.