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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
Of Music, eBay Charlatans and Letters to Friends
It was the worst of times, it was the most mediocre of times.
Take that, Dickens, you old windbag.
I'm really not the type to raise a glass at 11:59 p.m. on New Year's Eve, exuberant over ending a year so bad that re-reading a 19th-Century novel would've qualified as the best of times and proclaiming, "Whew. Didn't think I'd make it through that one. Good riddance, 2010." I'm not the type to limit categorical descriptions to preconceived notions of time—and yet, I must admit that visions of 2010 calendars burning like Rosebud in a fireplace still tingle like a teenage kiss.
If there has been a 12-month period filled with more pain, frustration and—let's face it—self-loathing during my 54-year window of exposure, then it's buried deeper in my brain than the quadratic equation. That said, I've lucked out. I'm not talking about your garden-variety, "That which does not destroy you ..." crap. I'm well past moral victories; they stopped having meaning about the time my four years of high school football ended with a half-dozen wins.
No, I'm talking about having just enough brain cells to determine why—after a proud lifetime of quick comebacks from self-inflicted wounds that made me appear motivated by degree-of-difficulty—I didn't come bouncing back with my usual playground bravado of, "Take that, world." You audiophile types will likely see the pattern in the forthcoming narrative quicker than I did by living it; you audiophile types are pretty bright.
And that brings up a salient question: Why am I telling this story in an audiophile journal? Did Psychology Today turn me down? Hardly (although I must admit I never pitched a query to Psychology Today... just thinking about it pisses me off because I can't shake the vision of their editors looking at my newspaper resume with such frivolity that even their conference-room portrait of Freud is laughing). Nope, you folks drew the short straw on targeted readership because there is actually an audiophile component to the story... a big component (pun subconsciously intended, I suppose).
"Uh-oh," you say about now. "Here comes another melodramatic tale of how music was salvation during a time of distress." And actually, you'd be pretty close... but not a bulls-eye.
(An aside to my six loyal readers: I've got your back.)
Music's importance indeed sprouted wings this year—buoyed dramatically by the long-awaited rejuvenation of household stereo systems (yes, plural), providing the largest ration of joy since that Tide tractor-trailer shown in TV commercials cleaned the bedsheets of hurricane victims.
(An aside to corporate jackasses: It ain't charity if you trumpet your own acts for the sake of brand promotion.)
Indeed, I come to you now with the hope I have enough new life-as-an-audiophile observations and insights to compensate for my approximate one-year absence. Of note, I have some equipment kudos for fellow cheapskates: a Swiss-army-knife DAC from YBA; a worth-every-penny subwoofer correction unit from DSPeaker; a shockingly good USB cable from Cardas; the first flawless wireless transmitter I've ever used, from JBL; and a new DAC and earphones from NuForce that shatter the glass-ceiling of value in personal electronics. I'll also throw-in a dash of short-cut installation bliss made possible by 40 years in this hobby, add some absolutely worthless opinions about recording artists new to me and then tie it together with two themes I hope will make it all worth your time (because as we all know, I have nothing to offer here at Positive Feedback without my themes).
One theme you know of: the back-drop of personal set-backs that, quite frankly, I didn't handle real well, particularly as they started to pile-up. I'll relate these episodes as letters to a friend, hoping you're willing to impersonate one.
(The muse/friend's nickname is "Schro"—a real guy, a real friend, and a real best-man at my wedding—but presented here as a composite because some of what I'll be saying is a bit embarrassing... make that: a lot embarrassing. So in reality I therefore needed all my friends in the past year, allowing custom selection in matching crisis to personality type. But there's no reason to confuse things here with the introduction of multiple characters. Suffice to say, Schro and I have been tight for north of 35 years, him being the only person I know who shares my opinion that having a chieftain portrayed with a Yiddish accent in F-Troop is comedic genius. ...Ahh, the ties that bind.)
Comic relief aside, my sabbatical from these pages hasn't changed what I've promised PFO readers in the few years since I made the fortunate acquaintance of Publisher David W. Robinson: a) full disclosure; and b) ongoing proof that I'll take advantage of being free from my newspaper shackles and show no interest in "writing safe." I've written thousands of "safe" stories and those boxes are now, officially, discarded.
The other theme—the over-arching theme, if you will permit that bit of pretension—is that in the course of all these events, I believe I have finally defined what constitutes an audiophile. I wasn't looking for a definition, mind you, but bumped into it and now realize how wrong I've been. Foreshadowing doesn't get any more transparent than these past couple of paragraphs, but I'll stop short of pre-empting all my own thunder by simply saying this: After 40 years, it took one bad deal on eBay to fully define "audiophile"... and illustrate it with more color than the auction company's logo.
But first, a peek into where the year-long tornado started. My oldest and dearest female friend, Linda, was actually an unrequited high school crush—a crush that continued in unrequited mode for a few years past high school when a strange thing happened: We became friends (mostly at Linda's doing, given I had nowhere-near the maturity to form and continue a friendship with the opposite sex). Even though we've both moved extensively around the country from our native New Jersey, the friendship has endured and we now live about a six-hour drive from each other, with me in Arkansas and Linda in Texas.
At the end of 2009, I thought I might be able to write something decent about our friendship and wrap it around the song, "This Old Heart of Mine," by the Isley Brothers. It would've been another installment of what I call "song-stories." And since aforementioned PFO Publisher David Robinson seemed adamant about ignoring the voice in his head continually saying, "He's not worth it ... he's not worth it... he's not worth it"—as it has in the head of every boss I've ever had—I contacted Linda to warn her of what was coming.
What I discovered during that communication derailed my psyche into paralysis. A few weeks later, I wrote to another friend about an injustice so maddening I still have a problem capturing it in words ...
You may not believe this, but after all Linda has been through with her two sisters, she now has cancer too. It's on its way to remission, Schro, but I'm not.
Apparently, she's been dealing with it for most of the past year, but wouldn't tell me because she knew how I'd react. I suppose she was right because I nearly broke both hands going several rounds with my office walls.
Nancy and I just got back after spending most of the week with her (luckily, Nancy had vacation time). It helped—although who it helped more is definitely up for debate. I cooked a couple of dinners, took several walks down memory lane and was entertained by seeing the side-show I predicted: Nancy immediately getting along with Linda's husband, David, who has down pat the dry-wit thing Nancy loves.
That said, the cruelty of this situation is nearly impossible to fathom. I used to think I was a pretty tough guy, but I'm no match for the women of the Cohen family. I got to know them pretty well during my years of pursuing Linda and if she had listened to one of them in particular—her live-in grandmother—my life might've come out differently. In fact, if I had hired my father and Linda's grandmother to pursue her for me by proxy, I would've been more successful. No doubt.
Of all the girls I paraded past my parents—including my nincompoop first wife—Linda was my dad's favorite ... by a long-shot. Like a lot of things between me and my father, it wasn't necessarily a proclamation, but an opinion understood by reading his face and voice inflections. I'm likewise confident he would've loved Nancy if he didn't die 15 years before we met.
I think what my father sensed in Linda is the snapshot of how I've come to view her when looking through the lens of time and in relationship to her two sisters. The eldest, Barbara, was an absolute knock-out; the middle daughter, Joanne, had somehow received a triple-portion of personality. I came to look at Linda as the best of both—and my dad always put a high value on versatility.
Joanne died from a brain tumor in the 1980s and Barbara likewise died of cancer in the 1990s. So was Linda's 2009 diagnosis some kind of warped once-a-decade pattern? Numerology aside, though, there was something far more cruel at work. After Barbara died, Linda made the heart-wrenching decision to undergo a voluntary, radical double-mastectomy. I never told her, but when I found out about it I went numb—and stayed that way for a long time. Hell, I still don't know whether I'm over it.
It wasn't solely because that feature was particularly, well ... outstanding, but because I had never heard of such a thing. And then she gets cancer anyway? You know how I was when Barbara, Bax and Dudley's wife were all diagnosed with cancer within a few weeks of each other back in '97? Well, hearing about Linda was like rolling all those diagnosis—and the deaths of all three—into one piñata I wanted to whack with the biggest bat in the rack.
We need a Manhattan Project of cancer. We need to grab the lobbyist budget from all the pharmaceutical companies, round-up all their medical researchers and lock them in a compound until they come up with a cure, instead of allowing them to continue work on the next, great E.D. drug. (Just love those erectile dysfunction commercials, don't you? It's great when the maker of Cialis warns of a four-hour erection. If I get a four-hour erection, I'll definitely see Alice... and Betty... and Debbie... and whoever else I can see. ...Talk about turning a negative into a positive—we need that kind of ingenuity applied to something that matters.)
For Linda to have company in the Life Is Cruel Dept., look no further than her mother. Shirl—on whom I could always count for a spirited and like-minded conversation about the ill effects that result when society slips too easily into judgmental intolerance—died a few months before Linda was diagnosed (which by some strange definition, I suppose is lucky), but she had to live through the horror of burying not just one child, but two. That's a form of sad I can't comprehend. And her health? Apparently she was a proponent of the same if-it-feels-good-do-it health philosophy I've lived, surviving until 88 on the Vodka & Cigarettes Diet.
(A challenge to any Health Fascist: Would you have denied this woman either of those indulgences?)
And to take it full-circle from my perspective, you know what I was working on when Shirl died? Yep, you guessed it: my first attempt at capturing the spirit of the Cohen Women in a story for Positive Feedback Online. It took close to a year for me to come back to it... and that's when I first heard about Linda's own news.
You know I don't believe in things like jinxes. But if I were you, I'd stay clear of me for a while.
Back on the home front, my No. 1 form of entertainment was hanging by a string. I suppose I had an opportunity to buy a $25,000 stereo about a decade ago, but I wouldn't have felt right about it—and that opportunity slipped by before I even had the chance to impersonate Vince Lombardi, mic'd up by NFL Films and bellowing, "What the hell is going on out there?"
But we weren't the only candidates for poster children of the "Great Flush"—so named because our economic times don't qualify as a textbook depression, but it's certainly something with downward movement and I'm not going to accept any modifier less than what my parents complained about.
When Nancy and I entered co-habitation in 2000, it was the first time in my life I had access to money greater than what was needed to get through the next month. If I leaned on her hard enough, I'm confident I could've had the stereo of my (reasonable) dreams, given she was left financially comfortable by her late husband. But, like I said, it didn't feel right—and lest I be accused of aggrandizing humility, I wouldn't have wanted to prove correct those snickering about us (not that I knew of anybody snickering, but I am a former newspaper reporter, which is to say, I'm an idiot).
So when the big lake house owned free-and-clear became the small, suburban rental during a bathroom break, my good-enough-for-me stereo became subject to faulty wiring that pared it down to one clipped crescendo from non-existent. But I was OK with that, mind you, and that's as good a jumping-off point as any to embark on describing what will likely be the last substantial stereo makeover of my life, given I'm fresh-out of rich uncles. And ask anyone who has suffered through a discussion of anything meaningful to me, it has to start with philosophy—my philosophy, in case that wasn't clear by now.
Actually, I've found that starting with philosophy is a good way to recommend stereo purchases to those who seek your help. And in fact, I now wish I had started more sales pitches from that angle when I chucked being a New York sportswriter in my early 20s, to sell stereo in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of course, that wasn't the original vocational plan. I simply ran out of money after making like Horace Greeley... and it only took 14 years to straighten-out that little quandary before returning to newspapers a couple of decades ago, becoming a politics and government reporter despite the first city council story I ever read being one I was yet to write.
But those years selling stereo in the late 1970s—when the only place for consumers to buy a stereo was at a (ta-da) stereo store and every ex-hippie who got a job wanted a stereo more than a car—were a whole helluva lot of fun. Coming from the button-downed world of newspapers to a workplace where a hangover was often an advantage, you played music all day, and jumping off a pair of JBL L-300s while playing air guitar was considered a sales technique, meant more than mere culture shock. To me, it seemed like collecting welfare.
After six years, however, any kind of retail can get old if you're not money-motivated. Apparently, though, I hadn't had enough of the electronics business, so I moved to the supply-side as a product specialist for dbx and then as an eastern regional sales manager for Sansui.
So yeah, as hard as it may be to believe, there was a time I had some game. Therefore, when I say starting with philosophy is one way to ensure enjoyable stereo ownership, it's coming from experience—although not always successful experience. For instance, I sometimes like to brag about how I was able to predict success for certain new product categories... and conveniently forget to mention those for which I was wrong.
My most recent blunder of gigantic proportion might've been camera-phones, which for my detractors is the gift that keeps giving (it isn't paranoia if people really are out to get you... or so I've been told... by the guy over there who keeps looking at me). But I should've known better than to expose my ass to a category I don't even like; I might be the last American less than 60 years old to restrict use of my cell phone to outgoing calls—outside my house. So when I first heard of cell phones with cameras in them, I couldn't laugh loud enough. Umm, apparently they've kinda caught on. But what's a few million people risking their lives to take and send pictures from the sites of revolutionary uprisings and natural disasters, when compared to my obvious intellectual superiority in claiming people should have better things to do?
And when mistaken predictions are multiplied by stubbornness, I can be left even further back in the pack. So while others are snapping cell-phone photos faster than photons shed weight, I have a new barrier from contemporary conversation: I don't have any apps. I can't even watch a half-hour news show without being reminded every few minutes of how out-of-it I am. "You should see the apps," says one; "Just go to the app store says another." App-this, app-that—it's enough to make a grown man get down on his knees and ask a brother to spare some help. I mean, it seems if there's a millisecond without an app being downloaded (and don't even get me into the self-pity that stole my soul when I felt like the only person in the world unable to download), that time is being used to invent a new app.
Laugh at me if you must. But it's damn hard to see everybody else in on the fun, but I'm here walking around with no apps.
So back at the Socrates-and-Sartre chapter of our voyage, when I talk about setting the table with philosophy: a) it doesn't mean I'm right; and b) I often mean nothing more than asking people how they listen to music. Only critical listening? Mostly background and casual? If the answer is, like for me, all of the above—with an experienced (educated or not) ear, a strong appreciation for the craft and a tight budget—then there's only one good answer: prepare to own more than one system, particularly these days when used equipment is so accessible.
This approach will allow multiple indulgences, such as:
1) A critical-listening system that doesn't have to be playing all day, every day, putting at risk your more expensive components (particularly those with tube life to consider);
2) A vintage (or plain fun) system that satisfies your desire to collect the quirky and a good way to stop losing your ass on repetitive compulsions to shop-and-swap;
3) A basic workhorse system for those 12 and 16-hour chunks of playing background music and can be a hub for spreading music around the house.
4) A headphone system that is often part of that workhorse system—or, as with me—a separate system fed musical signal by one of the above.
Not only does this approach satisfy a variety of desires, you'll have the ability to save and buy in increments. Or in other words: you can have your upgrades and eat dinner too. But given we know each other so intimately, a more intimate answer might be helpful to understanding the reasons behind my recent equipment rhymes. As a writer or reader of websites like this one—this stereo thing of ours (or La Cosa Ampstra, for audiophiles with bent noses)—goes a bit deeper than just looking for some tunes.
For a hobby that focuses on something so enjoyable, though, I sure have seen a lot of people who are unhappy with it. I used to see it a lot in retail, dealing with customers who seemed to lose sleep fretting about an extra ounce of this or a millimeter of that, taking weeks and weeks to decide on the difference in speaker cables—back when there wasn't much difference beyond 14-gauge vs. 16-gauge. Much of this becomes apparent in the upgrade-itis that befalls so many. I knew my livelihood depended on their dependence, but I can claim telling more than one of them, "My advice is to relax. You have a great system, why don't you just listen and enjoy it?" They would nod in agreement and be OK for a while, but then get antsy again.
Now if people sincerely enjoy buying new gear with rapidity, and nobody in their household is suffering as a result, then fine. But more often than not, I've found there to be unhappiness with a philosophical problem at the heart of it—one that goes far beyond stopping to think how the gear will be used. Fortunately for me, a philosophy for dealing with it started as a kid with what I now know to be visualization, but then just seemed like day-dreaming.
And maybe relaying my trials of affliction can be crystallized into keeping at least one of you on the fun side of the ledger. That's my job description here: make it fun, keep it fun. (If the verbal rhythm of that mission statement sounds a little like this story's lead, then treat yourself to a fine cigar and send me the bill... not that I'd pay it—just send it to me.)
My best weapon against being consumed by conspicuous consumption was developed in my childhood. I wasn't from money, my dad operating a modest paint store on land he didn't own. So in my desire to have the best baseball glove, for instance, I would settle for visualizing ownership of it. If I saw it in a store, in a magazine or on the hand of some rich-kid, I would take snap-shots in my head and concentrate as hard as possible to burn it into my brain. From there, I could visualize it on a shelf in my room. And if I then wished for a first baseman's mitt to go with it—which would certainly be out of the question, even if we could afford the fielder's glove—I'd repeat the process and do so over and over-again, owning in my mind all the things I could never have. It's not earth-shattering; I'm sure there are many kids who do the same thing, although I might've been more obsessed than most (all?) of them.
Some psychologists might put a negative spin on this, saying that construction of your own Fantasyland is escapism. OK, guilty—and allow me to steer them to my favorite Kosher sushi bar: So-sue-me.
When I became older and followed my childhood dream of being a newspaperman—at times working side-by-side with people who qualified for food stamps—only the price tags changed. To this day, in fact, one of my favorite hobbies is cataloging high-end audio. I have at least one four-drawer file cabinet filled with paperwork, the Internet being the best thing to happen to materialistic visualization since masturbation itself. So when I get upgrade-itis, I don't reach for my checkbook. I put on my reading glasses.
Of particular reward is when I have both the reason and wherewithal to buy what's in my own catalogue. And about this time last year, the craziest landlord-tenant argument I've witnessed—much less one in which I was a participant—precipitated the move that would eventually bring new stereo purchases into the fold... at a price... a steep price, when measured in flesh.
But before the consolation prize, the argument itself drove me to the edge—both emotionally and physically (near-death, according to doctoral scare tactics). And in times of trouble (to steal another phrase... sorry, Paul), writers write. Boy howdy, I needed verbal expression in a bad way ...
If you hear a rumor about a has-been reporter you know knocking on death's door, it's true. Or at least, that's what doctors said before realizing they had mistaken a world-record case of constipation for—dig this—kidney failure.
I was feeling woozy one weekend and, at times, unable to stand upright or hold a cup of coffee. So Monday morning Nancy got me to a local clinic, where the doctor's immediate treatment plan was to have me locked up for a drug overdose. No, really—I'm not kidding; he was more interested in prosecuting me than treating me. Once proven wrong, I was rushed to the hospital while the doctor called his lawyer and every doctor in town, to spread thin whatever blame I could later lay at his feet (or something like that). I can't remember the make or model of the ambulance used, but I quite vividly remember the textbook case of CTCA (Covering Their Collective Asses), these brainiacs hatched in the following schizophrenic sequence:
Day One: Possible death—or at least that's what they told Nancy and I, in a desperate attempt to prevent me from leaving the hospital while my insurance was still good. I'm sure you remember me telling you how I lost tremendous respect for the medical profession after my ten-year high school reunion. ("You're kidding me: He's a doctor? ...He's a doctor too? ...He's another doctor? Holy shit—these guys used to copy off my paper.") Well, I was certain these guys were out to polish that image and had Nancy pleading with me to stay. To them I could say no, but the desperation in Nancy's eyes was unmistakeable. So stay I did—sans the tape recorder I should've had.
Day Two: Possible kidney transplant.
Day Three: Possible life-long dialysis. ("Nancy, do you remember where we put the living will?")
Day Four: For dinner, I had the Linda Lovelace Special shoved down my throat, after which an experienced nurse slipped me a suppository laxative (without first buying me a drink) and I spent the night testing the limits of the hospital's plumbing system. I don't know if it's possible to crap 90 percent of your own body weight, but I'd swear I expelled the Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast I was made to eat at football camp when I was 15. By morning, it seemed all I had left to give was 1854-vintage dust from the lighting fixtures at McSorley's Old Ale House in Greenwich Village (http://www.mcsorleysnewyork.com), although I don't think they had lighting fixtures in 1854.
(Amusing aside: While on my first honeymoon in 1980, I took what's-her-name to my favorite tavern in the world and wasn't there long before recognizing actor Steve Guttenberg at the McSorley's stand-up bar. Just a few days before, I had seen him in his first lead role—a TV movie called, To Race the Wind, as Google just reminded me. He seemed jazzed to be recognized by anybody and we proceeded to get absolutely shit-faced together, walking out arm-in-arm while his friend and what's-her-name dragged behind, totally ticked-off. He was actually working his way through UCLA dental school at the time, but obviously, he never needed to finish those studies. Even though what's-her-name and I were living in the Bay Area at the time, I never did accept his offer to meet in L.A. ...Bottom-line: He's one of the good guys and I was glad to see Google has him listed as immersed in charity work for the homeless, among other causes. And if you're out there reading this, Steve, I have a cut-rate deal for charities: I'll write for the same amount I charge audiophile journals... minus the industry accommodations, which I guess would also make it environmentally friendly: a zero carbon footprint.)
Back to the hospital on Day Five: Released.
And that was it. No follow-up treatment, no medications. You know why? Because THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. I had told them of my extreme version of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (5.1) and that I've been prescribed opiate painkillers for my back, for ten years. Putting those two things together, it hardly even takes JUNIOR high school, to think it possible those narcotics weren't being processed properly, building up in my system and—voila—giving me the appearance of being drunk.
I know what you're thinking: How long did it take for me to get a lawyer? Nah, not my style. I've always considered that like hiring somebody to fight your battles for you. That said, I was far more red-assed about the stress that put me there, than I was about anything this crack medical team—or perhaps, that should be medical team on crack—had to say. In retrospect, though, my severe reaction had more to do with not being able to handle things in my own inimitable way. I'll explain and you be the judge:
One day about a month ago, I had been up all night trying to write (yep—that was to be yet another Positive Feedback story idea that would get derailed). I was asleep only a few hours when I awoke to a jackhammer that sounded like it was in my kitchen. I got up to see what was going on and realized I must've been pretty tired because that blasted thing had to be on for at least a half-hour, perhaps more. How did I know? Because I walked into said kitchen and there was white powder everywhere (no, not cocaine—concrete dust).
When I say this stuff was everywhere, I mean it: floors, shelves, cabinets, sink, stove—every crack and crevice, everywhere in the kitchen, including a bit more in rooms bordering the kitchen. There was even some on the dishes inside the shelves, having entered through the slightest of cracks in the doors.
So I followed the jackhammer's sound out the back door and saw two numbskull (as defined by them not wearing masks) construction workers breaking up the back patio, to connect a water line to the rear portion of the property, which had been granted a lot-split. And of course, they were spreading even more concrete dust outside, including onto our $1000 outdoor grille. As you might guess, my blood pressure went from zero-to-60 as if it were on the Bonneville Salt Flats and those two Jamochans were off the property in a matter of seconds.
Before relating the landlord conversations that followed, it bears repeating some of how we conducted ourselves as tenants during our three years:
* We were never late with our rent, and sometimes, paid it as much as ten days early.
* We provided three years of loving care for her border collie, Cassie—despite not being told of her existence until after we had moved in. And even then, it took me asking about some dog constantly at our back steps before Debra claimed ownership and said she had left her in the care of a neighbor. When I realized said "care" meant leaving Cassie outside in the sweltering summer heat with a once-a-day bowl of food and a hole in the fence, we stepped up to become Cassie's caretakers. The love we felt for that dog was the real deal, Schro. And in a way, I think she strengthened the love between Nancy and I, if only in uncovering our depths to supply it. That sounds a bit strange, I know, but it's as real as the hole we've had in our hearts without her.
* With the help of Steve as friend and handyman (I assume you're aware of the restraining order Black & Decker secured barring me from the general vicinity of power tools), we made a variety of free improvements, from shoring-up the plywood floor in the laundry room, to landscaping chores far beyond what was defined as our responsibility in the lease.
* When the 55-year-old stove could no longer be fixed again, Debra replaced it, but with the cheapest one available (of course). When I told her how much better a stove she could get using the more narrow standard of today vs. the wider standard of yesteryear (easily filling the difference with holders for cookie sheets), she didn't care—until I told her I'd get it done at no cost to her. For some reason, she was shocked when I actually pulled it off and she now has a top-of-the-line stove... for the next 55 years, I suppose.
* Debra regularly sent us e-mails about how "blessed" she was to have us as tenants. As much as I don't care for the religious tenor of the characterization, it shows she was at least aware of all we did—taking ignorance off the table for what followed.
Schro, I swear on my ATCO LP of Bobby Darin performing live from the Copacabana in 1960 that here's all I asked for after the concrete fiasco: a professional cleaning service to take care of the mess and for the construction crew to tarp the rear of the house before work resumed.
That's it. That's all it would've taken for me to overlook her violating the "peaceful enjoyment" clause in our lease and continue sending her more than 25 percent of our income every month. And how do you figure I reacted to having such a reasonable request turned down? Well, it's not like I forgot how to be a reporter.
A few phone calls later—including one to another friend, the former mayor—the stubbornness of both Debra and her retired-colonel, I'm-the-frickin'-boss boyfriend motivated me to discover the following: Her project was illegal. Tapping into an existing water line to supply a second lot, thereby avoiding thousands of dollars in impact fees, required a waiver that's extremely difficult to get and she didn't have. I had her dead-to-rights and if I pushed it, there'd be a city inspector whose answers deserved more scrutiny too.
Armed with that, I still gave her a back door. I know this sounds like an out-of-body experience given the source (that would be me... hey, it took longer than a bottle of muscatel, but I've finally mellowed), all would be forgotten as soon as a professional cleaning crew (Nancy works hard enough already) took care of the mess and the rear of the house was properly covered .
Their answer? Buckle your seat belt.
Late the next afternoon, Steve was at the house and I was preparing some salmon for a dinner we owed him, for services rendered. I answered a loud knock at the door and on the other side were two local cops and The Colonel.
They were there to take Cassie, the dog we took-in nearly three years before.
The two cops looked thoroughly embarrassed by the assignment, but of course, I complied without incident. Steve had known Debra for more than 30 years, dating to when they attended the University of Arkansas at the same time and from when she was married to a local reporter with whom he worked (and who is now a UA professor). Despite that familiarity, Steve was absolutely stunned. We've been friends for nearly 20 years and I never saw a look on his face quite like the one I saw that day.
"It's a good thing I was here," Steve said after the police had left, "because if you told me this over the phone, I never would've believed you."
You probably think you know what's coming next. Rodman War LXXII, right? Think again. I'll give you a hint: What's different about me now, having survived the first 71 of my-world wars? ...Give up? OK, here you go: For the first time, there's somebody in my life whose feelings I care about at least as much as my own.
Don't get me wrong—I can still be a selfish bastard and that's probably still my default setting. Old habits die hard. But Nancy had been harboring other housing ideas since this thing started brewing and all this did was accelerate them. Later that night, she spilled the Sambuca: She not only disliked the idea of renting any house, but has hated the small, confused lay-out of this house in particular. Add to that she didn't trust Debra from the moment we all met (that would be: Nancy-1, Me-0, on the Cosmic Trust-O-Meter, for those keeping score at home) and she saw this rift as her chance to angle for once again owning a home. This was a problem in more ways than one.
First, you know I've always considered home ownership overrated. The American Dream? Shit, The American Nightmare is more like it. I'd rather spend more each month on shellfish than housing. The way I look at it, bouillabaisse in an apartment is a whole helluva lot more fun than meatloaf in the Taj Mahal—and since I cook better than I do anything else, that's not just theory. Second, when your toilet backs up in a rental, you grab the phone and call the landlord; if you're a homeowner, you grab your checkbook ... and then, your ankles. Big difference.
And finally, I already had the opportunity to see if I've been right all these years. Remember our beautiful lake house? When our stock portfolio went from black to red faster than a native American after a minstrel show at George Wallace's house, hell, we had that covered, right? All we had to do was sell the house and we'd be fine, right? That realization came in 2004. Three years and four realtors later we had to accept the lowest bid at auction, just to get out from under our note.
That bit of domestic terrorism got us where, exactly? Oh yeah, now I remember: IT GOT US INTO RENTAL HOUSING. Jesus H. Christ, couldn't we have skipped the hair loss and done that from the beginning? Hell yes, we could've—and been on Easy Street when compared to all the other dumb-ass homeowners in this country, having spent half as much on rent as we did on mortgage payments. So why would I want to repeat that rubbish? Hmm, tough question... let's see—why would I want to do that again... hmmm.
Oh yeah, now I remember: because I had the luck of doing that other dumb-ass thing—falling in love. Man, glad I'll never have to do that again.
In the meantime, you can go ahead and figure on your annual visit to Fayetteville next year. I don't know where we'll be living, but it'll be no farther than spitting distance because I can't afford the U-Haul's gas.
Despite knowing "The Schro" since the mid-1970s, it was rare for us to get into any kind of deep conversation. That said, there is one subject I know to be more important to him than the Three Stooges or professional wrestling (which would make it nearly more important than life itself): If you were to corner him into admitting any personal higher ground, he'd tell you that man exists to take care of the animals.
To tell you the truth, I've heard worse life philosophies. And since he puts his money where his mouth will rarely go, that IRS entry for charitable deductions to the ASPCA he claims every year is for real. So at the very least, our landlord's pettiness involving a dog we obviously cared about more than her (or more than her son, who as I understood it, raised Cassie and still lives in Fayetteville, but wouldn't take responsibility for her) earned her an enemy beyond state lines.
But that wasn't the emotional distress I think put me in the hospital. No, I believe that came from not being able to deal with the situation in my usual, combative way. Because as Debra's lawyer threatened all kinds of legal maneuvers that had me on the floor with laughter, I couldn't shove them up his ass—as I've done to so many others throughout the years.
No, I had to keep those urges bottled-up because just as friends can't get over how somebody as sweet as Nancy could ever fall for a scoundrel like me, I couldn't convince her emotions that the mindless ramblings of a crappy lawyer wouldn't jeopardize her efforts to once again qualify for a home loan. And yes, I had to give that dream of hers a chance.
When I complained to a friend about how letting Debra and her lawyer think they were getting the best of us was tearing me up, he replied, "Mike, anybody who knows you, knows you can slice and dice these people into a million pieces. But you're doing something nice for somebody you love, so what's the problem?"
The problem, I explained, is that although I know that intellectually, I didn't know it emotionally.
And besides, it's not like I was a complete angel in the deal. In allowing Nancy to indeed attempt what I thought would never be my problem again, we had to have an agreement I very carefully negotiated. She agreed to my terms, which included: a mortgage payment less than what we had been paying in rent, zero down payment and a large rebate because whatever home we could afford, would likely need immediate improvements. ...And there was one other thing:
The house had to have two extra bedrooms, back-to-back, with a wall I could remove.
Why? To make sure the rejuvenated stereo I would get out of the deal would have plenty of room to throw a life-size soundstage.
...Maybe I'm not quite as stupid as I look. Stay tuned for Part II (coming soon) and you can be the judge.
Mike Rodman, an Associate Editor for Positive Feedback Online, is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.