Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Freak Who Helps People Move

The message left on my voicemail was cautious and tentative. An acquaintance of mine, a friend of my sister-in-law's (SIL), was moving this weekend and SIL had insisted that she call me, because, I, uh, like to help people move?

She said this in a tone that suggested someone was playing a practical joke on her. Who actually enjoys moving other people's stuff? Do I volunteer to do their dishes or paint their garage, too?

I called her back and said, "Yep, SIL was absolutely right: I love helping people move."

I don't know if it's a sickness, a fetish, or a calling, but I am the Friend Who Helps People Move. It's how I contribute to society. It's what I do.

The caption for this picture read, "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's helping people move." A common sentiment, and one that I freakishly don't share.


It must have started in college. I remember one weekend when my good friend and his girlfriend were moving into a larger apartment in the same complex. She had to work on Friday and he had to work on Saturday, so I was the only person who was there over the two-day moving process. I put in more hours moving their stuff than the actual people moving did.

Since then I have helped dozens of people move. Some were family members, some were good friends, some were people I worked with, some were friends of friends. Whenever I hear that someone I know is moving, I'm eager to let them know I can help. I will even badger them, "Do you need help? Do you need help? Do you need help?" I get offended if I find out they moved without me.

This is not how I help

Yeah, it's probably a sickness.


I guess my predilection for helping people move starts with the fact that I love moving myself. I come by it honestly-- I've moved about 30 times in my life.

When I explain to people about my fetish for moving, many of them react as if I've just told them some repulsive sexual proclivity, like I like to eat poo or something. What kind of freak actually likes that kind of stress?

I love packing-- going through all of my things, assessing my belongings, weeding out things I no longer need, organizing my shit. I love the physical act of carrying boxes and furniture and loading them efficiently into a truck or car. I love how, as each load is removed, my old dwelling slowly transforms itself from a cluttered living area to an empty and pristine space. I also love the empty canvas of my new place, figuring out the furniture arrangement, and finding the best space for all of my things. Watching it slowly transform itself from a series of empty rooms to my new home.
See how happy they are?

I love recruiting my family and friends to help share in this transitional moment of my life. I love showing off my new place and ordering pizza to reward ourselves for our hard work. I could hire movers, but it's not just about relocating your stuff from one place to another. It's about sharing this moment of your life. Who wants to do that with strangers?

See how scary these professional movers are?

And I guess somehow this love of moving has projected itself into helping others move. I like to share in the energy and excitement of their new adventure.


This has been an unusual week. I've helped two different people move, and neither of them was a good friend or family member. In fact, one of them was a complete stranger, a new hire at my "church" who was moving into town.

The other moving experience was she of the voicemail, the friend of my SIL. I spent most of my Saturday in 90-degree heat doing much of the heavy lifting, since there were only 2-3 of us who could lift the really heavy stuff. There were times when I thought, "This is crazy. Why am I doing this on my day off?" But the thought quickly passed, and I knew it was all worth it when I chowed down on well-earned pizza and got a sweaty hug of abject appreciation from the mover.

I'd earned my karma points for the day.


Some guys who grew up on farms like to take a day off from their desk jobs and tote bales of hay. (Or bale totes of hay, or hay totes of bales. I'm not sure exactly what it means, but manly men like to do it.) I think it reminds them of their childhood.

He's really a systems analyst from Des Moines

What I did a lot during my childhood, and throughout my college years, was move. So taking a day to move a bunch of heavy furniture is like a nostalgia trip for me. And the physical exercise makes me feel like I'm actually accomplishing something- unlike sitting on my ass and staring at a computer screen eight hours a day like I do at work.

Perhaps it's an exaggeration to say I love to help people move. It is hard work, and stressful for the person moving, but what I appreciate is the opportunity to earn easy karma points with something that I'm good at, I know how to do, and is relatively easy and stress-free for me.

So if you ever need any help moving your stuff, let me know.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Goats In Trees

Dear Goats In Trees 2012 Desk Calendar,


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rape Goblins

"You're gonna miss everything cool and die angry!"
That is how Patten Oswalt eviscerates an audience member during one of his recorded concerts.

As Patten is telling a story, during a quiet tender moment, this guy makes a loud whooping sound. This really seems to piss off Patten, who goes into a long rant about how this "dumb douchebag" was so uncomfortable with the silence that he had to disrupt the flow of the story.

I love the guy who's terrified at any kind of silence... fuck me for building a moment...I'd hate to see you at a funeral... [funny voice] 'SKYNARD!!!... Sorry, it was like 20 seconds of silence, I thought I was gonna shit my pants, I got real scared...'

Still in the voice of the heckler, Patten goes on to bring up the rape goblins:
"My mom told me that if it's quiet for more than 15 minutes, then goblins would come out the ground and rape you... so I was trying to protect everybody by yelling...I thought I would scream... to scare the rape goblins away...uh, has no one been raped?... Then I think I just saved the whole room..."

Start at the around the 6:00 mark to hear the heckler part.


The rape goblins are clearly the work of a comic genius, but it's also a great metaphor to use in my own life.

As a single person, I feel like I'm constantly trying to keep my own rape goblins away.

When my life gets too "quiet," when there is too much alone time, I turn mean and antisocial. It's particularly bad on Saturday nights. For some reason, all my life there's been this enormous pressure to do stuff on Saturday nights. It's the one night a week when I'm most likely to feel like a loser if I stay home alone.

So this is why I try to keep a very active social life. Why I play tennis 3-4 times a week, constantly try to make lunch/dinner plans with people, belong to two book clubs, join committees, volunteer, participate in groups, go to events, organize outings, plan vacations. It's not because I necessarily enjoy all of these activities.

I do it to keep the rape goblins away.

So I don't miss everything cool and die angry.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book of Musicals

I did not grow up a fan of musical theater. As a kid I was into sports and Star Wars and computer games and TV. But people spontaneously breaking out into song and dance? That wasn't a part of my childhood.

Not a fan

It's taken a lot of time, but thanks to muppets having sex and Mormons singing about clitorises, I've become a fan of Broadway musicals. It's hard to listen to show tunes and be in a bad mood. There's just something about them that makes me so goddamn happy in spite of myself.

I only own two Broadway musicals CDs. The first was Avenue Q, which I bought a few years ago after someone played me a video for the song "The Internet is for Porn" and I knew I just had to hear the whole show. And it's brilliant, like Sesame Street for adults. For many years Avenue Q was the only Broadway musical I knew intimately. I finally got to see it during a trip to New York a few years ago. It was awesome.

The Internet is for posting dorky tourist pics of you in front of the Avenue Q poster. And porn.

Last weekend I doubled my collection of Original Broadway Cast Recordings when I bought The Book of Mormon. I'd been hearing everywhere about how great it was, and since it was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, I figured I'd try it out. (When I got the CD, I saw that Robert Lopez also co-wrote it. I thought I recognized that name, so I looked on my Avenue Q CD, and sure enough, he co-wrote that too. Good sign.)


The Book of Mormon had a lot to live up to. Everyone was raving about it. Even people who had their doubts became converts. Dan Savage wrote this about it in his column:

I didn’t think it was possible, but Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s brilliant new musical about well-intentioned Mormons on a mission exceeds the hype. It’s the funniest, dirtiest, smartest thing that this showqueen has ever seen on Broadway.

I have to admit that about halfway through my first listen, there was a small disappointment. I think maybe my expectations were too high. The music wasn't great and much of the lyrics felt like too much South Park shock value. But the story ended so brilliantly that it pulled me back in. And on the second, third, and fourth listen it grew on me even more. I was impressed with how it all fit together.

I haven't even seen the show. I only have the CD and the liner notes to go on. But the music alone is funny and raunchy (even for me it gets too crude in places) and smart in that it brings up lots of issues about religion, belief, oral (hehe) traditions and mythology. And there are lots of wacky misinterpretations.

Of course it makes fun of Mormons. To wit:

Wow! So the Bible is actually a trilogy, and the Book of Mormon is Return of the Jedi?!? I'M interested. ("All-American Prophet")

Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes, then find the box that's gay and... CRUSH IT!!... Turn it off, like a light switch. ("Turn It Off")

You're making things up again, Arnold. You're taking the holy word and adding fiction! ("Making Things Up Again")

I can't believe Jesus called me a dick!!!! ("Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams")

And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes. ("I Believe.")

I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!!! You can be a Mormon! A Mormon who just believes. ("I Believe")

Let's be really fucking polite to everyone! ("Joseph Smith American Moses")

But despite all this, there is real affection for the Mormon characters in this story. It is not a hostile critique. As it states in the liner notes (much more eloquently than I could): "...the satirical tone is far closer to bemused tolerance than blasphemous antipathy... Parker, Stone and Lopez can't help but be seduced by the fabulousness of those golden plates."

I'm curious what Mormons themselves, if they've seen the show, think about it. I'm sure a lot of them aren't happy about it, but I could see some more open-minded Mormons enjoying it. A quick Google search confirmed my theory:

Mormons find musical 'Book of Mormon' surprisingly sweet

"I was expecting to be offended," said Anne Christensen, a 22-year-old LDS New Yorker, "but was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was."

Her mother, Janet Christensen, added: "It's not G-rated, but they treated us with affection. And they did their homework."

Here's a Mormon who thinks it's offensive, although curiously she doesn't say exactly which parts are a "misrepresentation of my Mormon faith."

Are Mormons Offended by Book of Mormon Musical?

And the official statement from the LDS Church is short and "media savvy", as this writer says:

LDS Church Responds to South Park Mormon Musical


Josh Gad, a correspondent for The Daily Show, plays the lead, a simple and confused young man going on his Mormon mission. He confuses the Book of Mormon with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Sometimes he comes across as too "special" and that kind of distracts from his performance, but otherwise he's brilliant. I've never been much impressed with him on the Daily Show, but raunchy musical theater is really his calling.

In particular, Gad's duet with the female lead in "Baptize Me" is the sexiest song about baptism I've ever heard.


I just baptized her!
She got doused by the Heavenly Father!
I just baptized her good!

...I performed like a champ!


You baptized me...

I'm wet with salvation!

There's a lot more to love about this musical, but I'll just leave you with this:

Tomorrow's a doper, phatter latter day!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Poop Scoop Solution

For years and years I always used the gray clay-based clumping cat litter. But lately it was annoying me because it would always leave this dusty, perfumy, chemically smell around my house that I didn't like. It also seemed that the brand I used kept changing the formula so that it was getting more dusty.

Since I've been going more and more green over the past few years, I decided I would investigate greener litter options. So a few months ago I Googled "natural cat litter" and found something called Swheat Scoop. It's a clumping cat litter made from wheat instead of clay. According to the website, this miracle cat litter naturally eliminates odors, clumps firmly, has less dust and tracking than clay litters, is safe for kittens, and is found at a location near you.

They also have a picture of a blue-eyed cat on their bag whose gaze pierces your soul

After checking a few different pet stores, it was indeed found at a location near me. So I bought a big-ass bag of it and hauled it home. I switched out the clay stuff with the wheat stuff and waited for the swheat, swheat smell of all-natural cat waste to surround my house.

After a few weeks of vacuuming and sweeping, pretty much all traces of the old gray dusty clay litter was gone from my house. That gross perfumy chemically smell was replaced by a scent that reminded me of the hay lofts in the barn where my cousins grew up. Ah, nature!

Not my cousin

But nature also comes with compromises. It turns out their promise that there would be less dust and tracking was an outright lie. If anything, there is more dust kicked up by the wheat litter. My litter box, litter mats, and utility-room floor is covered in a light tan film. Sometimes I even see it on my black cat.

Not my cat

Okay, so they lied about that, but that's a small price to pay for the other advantages, not the least being this is better for the environment.

Then the smells came.


I know that every cat owner has their own technique, and mine has always been to empty the clumping litter into a small wastebasket I keep near the litter box.

Very similar to my actual litter trash can

I do this once a day. I know some people who scoop out their litter box after every, uh, incident the cat has. They practically follow the cat around with a pooper scooper. And I know some people who go days and days without emptying it.

I do it once a day, and at the end of the week I empty the litter wastebasket into my larger trash can, which I then take to the curb.

I once had a girlfriend who thought it was disgusting that I "saved" my cats' poop in a receptacle, as if I was collecting truffles in the wild. I would always explain to her, "I'm not SAVING it, this is TRASH." But it still grossed her out.

But once the Swheat Scoop collected in the wastebasket, I started to notice a smell coming from my utility room. Although it no longer reeked of dusty chemically clay litter, now it smelled like straight-up cat pee.

I have no idea why an image of this beautiful woman came up when I googled "cat pee smell." But, wow, isn't she amazing? Now back to cat pee...

On their website, the Swheat Scoop people say "[our] litter has the deodorizing strength it takes to keep your house smelling fresh and clean." Um, no. That, too, is a lie. When I walk through my utility room, I smell cat pee.

But I wasn't ready to give up on this green alternative to the traditional clay litter. In the meantime I even discovered that my local food co-op sells Swheat Scoop, so I could buy it there when I do my weekly shopping. So I thought I'd keep trying different things to see if I could make it work.


I sat down to write this post this afternoon, and right before I started I checked my blog reader to catch up on some other blogs. By an interesting coincidence a blogfriend posted something about catwatching for a friend of a friend and having to scoop up turds. She mentioned how the micro-managing cat owners wanted her to drag the litter boxes across two rooms to the bathroom so she could dump the waste there.

And then I remembered, Swheat Scoop is biodegradable! I can flush it down the toilet! Why am I saving it in a little trash can and letting it stink up my house when I can just flush it once a day? Now when I "save" my kitty waste in my little trash can, I can just take it directly to the toilet.

So here is a simple lesson in solutions. First of all, often times if you give it some time, the solution to a problem appears to you from unexpected places.

And sometimes the solution is ridiculously obvious, but you couldn't think of it because to do so would have challenged the inertia of how you've always done it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Death and Mowing

My next door neighbor died last month. I hardly knew him. In fact, I think the only interaction I had with him was when I was out buying shoes and he recognized me. He said, "I'm your neighbor. The one with the crazy wife."

I had more interactions with the "crazy wife." She's always doing yard work. Even at night, in the dark. When I first moved in two years ago, she said that she and her husband were separating and she had a place in the country. I never could quite figure out what the deal was with that, because she was still around all the time, doing yard work. I sometimes got the impression she desperately wanted to work on my yard, since I'm so lax about weeds & stuff. I let things grow. I think that drove her crazy, and one time I suspect she poured bleach over my stone bed to kill weeds growing out of it.

Not my neighbor

Anyway, a few months ago she mentioned to me in passing that her husband was really sick. I said I was sorry to hear that, and the conversation ended there, like many of our awkward conversations. Then last month there was a notice for a funeral showing left in my mailbox. I didn't recognize the name and there was no postage on it. The showing was already past, so I walked over to my neighbor, who was out in her yard and asked if this was her husband. She said yes and started crying. He had just lost his job a few months before, and soon after was diagnosed with cancer, and died a matter of weeks after that. It was all very sudden and she was terribly shaken. She asked me for a hug.

I felt terrible and I said I was really really sorry and to let me know if there was anything I could do.

But other than giving her that hug, I didn't know what I could do.

The only thing I could think to say was, "I could mow your lawn."

Not me

My neighbor has a really big beautiful lawn.

Not my neigbhor's lawn

It borders a part of the street that curves, so the lawn makes a big curving arc along the street, like Trivial Pursuit piece. It's a fun lawn to mow. And mowing the lawn, like doing laundry or vacuuming, is one of those easy chores I enjoy doing. I like walking outside, getting exercise, making these neat tidy geometric lines, the smell of cut grass. So mowing her lawn was an easy way I could contribute.

The next time I mowed my lawn, about a week later, I went over to her house to see if this was a good time to mow hers. Before I knocked on her door, I heard wailing from inside the house. Like actual literal wailing. Someone moaning "oohhhhh!" in a heartbroken, distraught voice. I wasn't sure what to do, but I knocked anyway. She came to the door and said, "Sorry, you caught me at a bad time." I said it was okay and asked if I could mow her lawn. She said yes and thank you.

I don't know what kind of relationship she had with her husband. If they were separated, reconciling, working on it, or what. But clearly his death had shaken her. And other than mowing her lawn, I didn't know what I could do. I didn't think I could be there for her emotionally. I hardly know her. And, frankly, I'm not the kind of guy who can provide that kind of support to someone I don't know.

So I mowed her lawn. It was the least I could do.


Last week I mowed my lawn again and saw that her lawn could use it, too. But I didn't see her around her yard, and I was apprehensive about mowing her lawn without asking her first. It was 10:00 in the morning, and no one answered the doorbell when I rang.

I'm not one of those people who does people favors before I have their permission (or know for a fact it's something they would like.) Sometimes a "favor" can do more harm than good. For example, I used to work in a library where the circulation clerk would automatically renew my materials for me. I know she meant well, but I like knowing when my stuff is due. It reminds me of the things I have out, and nudges me to return stuff I'm not going to finish. So I thanked her for renewing my items, but asked if she could let me do it from now on.

Another example: Whenever I see a car in a parking lot with its lights left on, I'm reluctant to go and turn the lights off myself. I know there are people who would do this, and I wish I were that brave. But I worry about approaching a car that's not mine. I worry someone might think I'm breaking into it. I worry that maybe it's automatic lights that will turn off in a minute, or maybe the person intentionally left them on for some reason.

In short, I don't like to make assumptions.

So when my neighbor was not around at 10:00 on a Friday morning, I wasn't sure if I should go ahead and mow her lawn or not. Since I'd already done it once and she seemed thankful, I decided to go for it. I mowed the lawn. When I saw her later in the day, I found out that she'd been sleeping. Oops. She was very appreciative, and didn't say that I'd woken her up, but I still wondered if I should have gone ahead and done it without checking with her first.


I'm not sure what the point of this post is, other than to illustrate my philosophy of contribution. (And my compulsory liberal/Catholic guilt.) We all have different talents, abilities, and comfort zones. I feel like the best way I can help my grieving neighbor is to mow her lawn, a chore that's not much of a burden for me.

It's like how I am the Friend Who Helps People Move. I love the process of moving and experiencing that with other people, so whenever a friend or acquaintance puts out a call for moving help, I'm all over it. It's a tiny way I can contribute to the world.

I'm not looking for a medal or karmic rewards or even a pat on the back. I'm just trying to figure out what's the right thing to do in awkward neighborly situations.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Portal to Hell No More

When I bought my house two years ago, there was this big, weird rectangular indentation in the back yard.

Along the edges of it were stone walls, and at one end it opened up where a door would be, and there were metal pipes nearby that the lawnmower would hit, which made a horrible awful sound.

No one-- the seller, the neighbors, the seller's realtor, my realtor-- knew what it was. Theories included an old greenhouse, barn, garden, bomb shelter. I thought it might be an alien landing pad, or an Indian burial ground, but then I decided it was just a generic Portal to Hell.

Whatever it was, it had been filled in, and then settled, so that now there was a big old indention in my back yard. For two years it sat on my list of house projects to fill it in.

Last week I made it happen.

First I needed a shit-ton of dirt. My landscape consultant, Peter, priced around and told me to order "8 yards" of it from our dirt guy.

A big dump truck dropped off 8 yards of pulverized processed topsoil, which looks like this:

AKA, a shit-ton. On the receipt it says "Sterling Dump." I don't know what this refers to-- the place it came from, the type of dump truck, the method by which the dirt was created-- but I really like that phrase.

I never realized when I bought my house that I'd be concerned with the price of dirt, but this mound of premium fertile Midwestern soil cost me $191.20. And I was excited about it-- another thing I never thought I'd be capable of before I owned a home.

Here's what the Portal to Hell looked like just before the project:

The plan was to remove the grass sod, lay it aside, fill in the hole, then cover it back up with the sod. About three hours into the project, we'd removed a lot of the sod:

And laid it aside on tarp:

It took us about four hours to get all the sod up.

We unearthed many artifacts (click on photo for larger view.)

Pieces of cinder, glass bottles, clay pipes, light bulbs, a blue plastic knife, plastic bags, a rubber O-ring, big stone slates. No human bones, though. The demons must have already feasted on those.

Now the fun part started. Moving the dirt from the big mound on my driveway back to the Portal. This was my favorite part of the project. I really wish I'd counted how many wheelbarrow loads it took. My guess is about 50. Here's the pile when we were about halfway done:

Two wheelbarrows: one red and one green. To make it festive.

We dumped the dirt into the hole.

The last load:

Swells of dirt, like a mountain chain:

Then we smoothed it out:

The last step was the most boring, difficult, and tedious. We had to take all the sod pieces...

and put them back over the dirt. It was like putting together a huge, filthy puzzle. Under a hot sun.

I took a picture of our progress once an hour:

The shadow from the house moved across the yard, making pics difficult. But as these time-lapse photos attest, it took at least four hours to finish this part. All that was left at this point was the very back edge:

There was some dirt left over from the sod pieces, so I dumped it in the corner and created Mount Tim. I will use this dirt to fill in any holes as they appear.

It looks bigger live

The last step is to drench the Portal so that the grass transplant takes.

We were lucky that it didn't rain at all during the three days we worked on this project. Moving wet dirt (aka mud) would have made it a real mess, and more difficult.

However, since I've finished this project, we haven't gotten any rain. One of the few times in my life when I would WELCOME rain-- where it wouldn't just ruin tennis plans or outdoor fun-- and it won't come. I've been watering the Portal day and night all week. I can't imagine what my water bill is going to be this month. (Yes, I know: First World Problem.)

I love the idea of all the grass and mud pieces fusing back together into one teeming mass of roots, soil, and life. I'm really eager to see what it will look like in 2 or 3 months. Will there be any evidence that the Portal was ever there?

But I'm not too concerned. If I learned anything from Jurassic Park, it's that life will find a way.

Eventually, something will grow there.