Leave the Cat. Take the Chainsaw.

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Suppose late one night you’re aroused from uneasy dreams by an unfamiliar noise. Flames crackle outside your window. No Emergency Broadcast Signal, no wailing sirens, but the fire is loud. Deafening, as the trees which overhang your house spark up like 60 foot matches.  You have quick decisions to make.  Hold on. Let me find my glasses, first, jeez….  

No time for glasses.

Where are my good boots?
Forget the good boots! Let’s go!
It’s crazy out there. I’m not going anywhere without my good boots.

Pushed off the headlines by more telegenic fires south in Santa Rosa, rural Mendocino County endured a fire last week you may not have heard of.  It originated with a downed power line after midnight. The initial conflagration overtook rural neighborhoods before people could evacuate in an orderly manner.    Most were informed of the firestorm, if at all, by fleeing neighbors, and only then if their house was convenient to the road. Those who hesitated, even for minutes, perished.  Dozens of residents remain missing.

My parents had a ringside seat from just beyond the evacuation zone, and the good fortune to have several days to watch the smoke and perfect an escape plan, should the worse-case scenario occur. I asked them what would they put in their Go Bag.

Paintings. (Really? Yes.) A few framed photographs. The laptop. ID’s and financial papers, naturally.  A violin. And oh yeah, the chainsaw. 

Yes, the chainsaw!  You never know when you might come in handy.  It has served him well over the years.

They were leaving the cat, however. “Every time we’ve put him in the car, even to the vet, he’s made a run for it.”   In their defense, they’re in their 70’s, an age oriented toward shedding burdens.

Gaming out a list like this works to God’s amusement, and one can’t help but wonder at the speed the list would unravel should they be forced to yield the car to the flames and make a dash though the woods. My mother I suspect would cling to the violin, which she doesn’t play, as a matter of principle.  The better question would be: In the rush to flee would my father remember to fill the chainsaw with gas? Or Would he be running through the woods carrying a 50lb gun which had no bullets? Probably yes. Which would make the chainsaw vs. violin debate rather academic.  He’d make her get rid of the violin.

Mrs. UpintheValley, decidedly Not A Cat Abandoner, has made a pre-decision to shelter in place come hellfire or zombies, and to that end ran out and bought survival equipment.  The entire conversation as to who to take and who to leave is anathema to her.

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The obligations of love require me to perish by her side, so I’m doing the sensible thing.  I’m buying bullets.

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You, and Your Privilege…

Guess it’s a good thing we don’t live in Highland Park. We may have to take our own lives as penance.

Along our secret stair hike...

Things we saw on our secret stair hike…

The world before the return of white people

…the world before the return of white people

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We wondered if this was the offending act of gentrification. A traditional bodega putting on airs: gourmet coffee, a juice bar, vegan options, a wine list and spot lighting.

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Highland B0wl is pretty rustic on the outside. Unfortunately, the lanes were closed for a private event.  There was a doorman and a velvet rope.  There’s a clue.

With a little sleuthing we found a craft cocktail bar tucked away behind the bowling alley.   Enticingly, it offered a dog-friendly courtyard.

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We ordered something with fernet. It cost $15.  Frigging delicious.  Strike three. It’s official. We is gentrifying!

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I don’t know who this white lady is, but she seemed to be enjoying herself unrepentantly.  Shame!

Ikea Hell Week

First, lets peek behind the walls

First, lets peek behind the walls

Blogging has been absent the past ten days. I’ve been giving my kitchen the Ikea makeover.

I budgeted two days for sorting out the 1948 wiring, and the highly dubious add-ons from the 1980’s.

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That was a tad optimistic.

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Trixie found a cubby hole in the bamboo at the very back of the yard, and spends her days there, as far from the crazed man as possible.

An Ikea State of Mind

From teenage runaway...

Our first apartment in LA, when she was a runaway…

Valley housewife

…and as a Valley housewife

The first thing we did when we moved to LA was go to Ikea. We bought plates and bowls, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, but it was notable for being the first time we had spent over $300 on domestic arrangements. An astronomical sum for us, and a stealth commitment to marriage.

Our kitchen may be larger now, but I see commonalities with the past:  Ongoing clutter. An obsession with condiments and spices. Animals underfoot.

It was easy to go to Ikea then. We had little money to spend, so there was little to argue over.  Our spending was aspirational, and therefore abundant:  when we have X, in the mid-future, we will be able to purchase Y. Or we can get Z.  I love Z!  Z would do nicely in the house, when we are able to buy one. Meanwhile we’ll avail ourselves of some $5 candlesticks.

Ikea was a benevolent doting grandmother steering young couples toward the altar.  Then it became a shrewish spinster aunt lurking in the attic, scheming to deny happiness to others.

Buying a house simplified matters. It made us too poor to shop to Ikea, or anywhere else. For the first decade, anyway. Now that we can return to Ikea and almost -almost- entertain the possibilities of the catalogue, we march alongside each other in silence, and leave cheerlessly with a bathmat, some glass jars and a stool.  She annoyed with my annoyance we still, at this late date, dine off mismatched countertops. I annoyed she can’t see how much better the food would taste if the backsplash tiles complemented the room.  Behold the peevish first world troubles of Mr. UpintheValley!

So….yesterday we toured the Brewery Art Walk, its labyrinth of studios and zoo-like glimpses into the domestic arrangements of the artists, who welcomed the curious hordes into their lofts with the cheery announcement that “everything was for sale”.

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Like a vulture, I found myself drawn to the kitchens, more than the work itself.  Simplicity reigned, but Ikea lurked in miniature: dish racks, silverware holders, cutting boards.

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This one looked like a set for a stage play. A period piece of long suppressed family secrets. The artist dined at her own table as though hundreds of strangers weren’t mere feet away, auditing her life and its works, which was in itself as much a work of performance art as anything on the walls.

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Small sinks, formica countertops, vintage stoves, linoleum tiles. Cool, yet impermanent.

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“You gotta see this,” said Andrew, leading me into a portrait studio of Swedish landscapes.  I was surrounded by iterations of a Don Draper-like man lounging in Ikea showrooms, meticulously recreated from photographs.

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The man was by turns contemplative, and possibly fearful of leaving the world in which he found himself.  To leave Ikea, said the artist, Rikki Niehaus, one enters a fallen world. A dystopia of ruin.

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I was looking at a version of myself on the wall, one with his loves not rightly ordered.  He stared back at me over my wife’s shoulder, implacable, imprisoned by caution.

Here I am, she said. There, you are not.

Swedish for Argument

In the labyrinth of decisions

In the labyrinth of decisions

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When first you arrive at the new Ikea, the escalator deposits you into the food court. Like a marooned astronaut on a foreign planet, you take your tray and step directly into a line for swedish meatballs.

Being herded in this way is oddly comforting. Though neither of you want to admit it, you know what’s coming.  Might as well do it on a contented stomach.

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Ikea knows what’s coming, too. Decades of careful study of consumer behavior has shown a well gravy-ed belly is a prophylactic against impulsive argumentation. To that end, they stack chocolate bars for you by the register.  Only 99 cents! Do you feel line having chocolate right now?  Not particularly.  Reason not the need.  At these prices, it would be unsportsmanlike to say no.   There is Mirkwood to cross and the Misty Mountains beyond. You’re fortfifying yourselves. So, lets get another, while we’re at it.  And a third one for the road.

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Into the living dioramas of the showrooms we went…to an Other Life, prettier, more well-ordered than one’s own.

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You stagger through them in wonder. Wonder begets desire. Desire begets recrimination.   You stand upon shores of beckoning kingdoms, a rebuke to the squalor of your own circumstances.

Here, you are not.  This, you have not. You are wanting.

Purchasing the tableau entire is never possible. So the question becomes what half Ikea, quarter Ikea, one tenth of an Ikea tableau could you go home with and not disagree with yourself?

Buying it all is easy. Picking the right three items to agree on is where the trouble starts.

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Kitchens were a particular hazard.

You know of one marriage that nearly came to an end with a screaming match at the Emeryville Ikea, with the wife announcing she was going back to China and taking the kids, while the Kitchen Dept. assistant averted her gaze, doodled nervously on her notepad, as though that sort of thing didn’t happen once a week.  The following day you were deputized to return to the scene of the crime and pick up their order for them as they were too ashamed to show their faces.

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As is her nature, Mrs. U  touched everything, opening drawers and sniffing candles as though trying on pairs of shoes.

“Our kitchen is too small,” you announce, breaking the spell.

“These kitchens don’t have walls, making them seem larger than they are. There’s nothing wrong with the size of our kitchen. It’s more than adequate.”

Adequate was the worse possible descriptor she could have chosen in that moment.

She did it on purpose, you decide. The afternoon takes a turn, and you both know it.

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She begins marching ahead of you.   With purpose.

TO BE CONTINUED….

A Thin Line Between Jackass and Hero

What could go wrong?

What could go wrong?

Well, this...

Well, this…

The UpintheValley Theoretical School of Home Renovation operates on the following principle:  a) get a book; b) read that book; c) do what the book says.  Voila! New copper plumbing. Honey, look at all the money we saved.

In practice, there is a learning curve: a) first time wrong, b) second time better, c) third time proficient.  ABC.  Always Be Climbing the curve.

This works, more or less, with tile setting, hanging windows, sweat-fitting pipes underneath the house. Piecework…things of that nature…offer margins for error.

Felling a tree is a different animal.

If the tree is 38 inches in diameter, and your saw is 2o inches in length, your margin of error is two inches.  If the tree is 12 feet from the house, but 18 feet in height, your margin is…let’s just say in a contest between two tons of hardwood,  dropping on a hinge, and stucco… stucco doesn’t win.

The Battle Plan

The Battle Plan

So I spray painted some cut lines in the bark, measured out a fall. I made the notch cut.  I stopped several times to check the face of the notch to see it was smiling directly toward the narrow window of space between my tangerine and grapefruit trees.  As a first time tree faller, I was confident hopeful I could drop it without damage to them. If you look carefully at the upper photo, you will see a scratch work of saw lines.  In homicide investigations, these are known as hesitation wounds.

So having done my “homework”, in this case not a library book, but a cursory web search, with illustrations, how did my rented chainsaw end up stuck in a tree that was 90 percent cut through? Why was it not leaning in the direction I wanted it to go? How was it I managed to overlook the use of shims?  If I stopped right there, and called 311, how much would the City charge me to remove this public safety hazard I created with my Van Nuys Can-Do spirit?  How would I explain to my neighbor why she couldn’t park in her driveway ever again, or at least until I got things sorted?

No longer fully in control of matters, I did what jackasses have always done. I improvised.  I grabbed a crowbar, the only plausible shim I could think of, jammed it in the cut, and told Mrs. U to pull very hard on the polyurethane rope I had attached, in my now alarmingly glib pre-planning, to the upper branches.   In the event of a stiff gust of wind in the wrong direction, about as useful as dental floss. Fortune favors the brave they say, and between her pulling on the rope and me pushing on the bar we were able to rock the trunk just enough to yank the saw out.  At that point, the tree felt a little wobbly in my hands. It was definitely going down now, but about 30 degrees off line.  Away from the house, praise Jesus.

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I pushed, she pulled, and over it went, straight through the trellis over the front of the walkway, which imploded like a house of toothpicks. Not a pretty landing, but never have I been so grateful for a fix-it project.

In my head I could hear the voice of Howard Cosell exulting: Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

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It’s a thin line between jackass and hero. If it goes your way, your wife looks at you like this. Glad I’m not living with the alternative.

Take Me to the Nail Salon, for 79 cents

The future of ride share?

The future of ride share?

Mrs. UpintheValley decided she wanted to get a manicure over the weekend. ‘Twas raining, so she called an Uber.  She claims her app was set to UberPool by mistake, but a car was at the door in three minutes, having already picked up another passenger in the neighborhood.  Off they went, and she was deposited, quickly and dryly, two miles away at the salon.

Her bill: 79 cents.

You can’t even buy the weekly edition of the LA Times for that.  You can’t get a candy bar at the corner store.  The Metro bus is $1.75, one way.   Normal UberX is 90 cents per mile, with a five dollar minimum, and a four dollar cancellation fee.  But if you can slipstream in as the second passenger on a short Pool ride, you can turn another working American’s Prius into the Tap-Tap bus of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Uber drivers, needless to say, hate UberPool.   First world service at Third World prices, with first world overhead eating your balance sheet.

“But I tipped him!” Mrs. U says in her defense.  Not having any singles handy, she handed him four quarters.  I type this to shame her.

To be fair, UberPool rides are rarely this cheap, but they are now an inescapable part of driving.  The arc of economic justice may be long, but in the end, ubiquity bends all prices toward zero.  In theory, a driver can turn down Pool rides. In practice, once his acceptance rate drops below 80% (and it will if he says no to Pool) he loses driver incentive$. Without incentive$, his take home drops below what one could justify for wear and tear on a good vehicle.  Pool was created in answer to rider dissatisfaction with surge pricing. Uber created incentives to mollify drivers dissatisfied with Pool pricing, but the catch is you have to drive a whole lot more than you normally would in order to attain them.

It’s a splendid thing working class people can avail themselves of an affordable ride hailing service.  It’s a blessing for the formerly unemployed and people in need of extra night work to have a side gig. The unknown element in the equation is the means of production: the car itself. We are very early in the life cycle of ride-share apps.  In my experience, the Uber payout justifies new tires and brake pads. New transmission, not so much.

When the heavy repair bills roll in this coming year or two, what then?  How many drivers will leave the app?  How many will buy the new transmission? More telling, how many will stay on the app but ride the old transmission until it spits metal shavings and drops like a hansom cab draft horse in the August heat, right in the middle of the 405 commute?

Most of them, I suspect.

Jack Baruth, who writes beautifully at The Truth About Cars, has some thoughts on that topic.

Aren't they pretty?

Aren’t they pretty?

My wife tipped her manicurist three bucks for a job well done.  She can afford to be generous with my money.

I wonder what my brother Uber driver did with the quarters.

Refugees

IMG_0130Mrs. UpintheValley and I went to the Channel Islands this week for hiking and sea kayaking.  The landing dock at Scorpion Cove had been taken out by a winter storm,  so at the end of the day we had to queue up for lifts back to the boat on Zodiac pontoon rafts with outboard motors.   The wind picked up to 40mph and we huddled along the cliff face, sand stinging our faces, politely waiting our turn, clutching tickets.  We went in groups of six. They issued us life jackets and we climbed into therafts and waited for a surge of water to lift us off the sand.

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It was all very civilized.  But as the air chilled,  and the water got choppier and people began to shiver in their shorts, I began to wonder: what if it 500 people wandered out of the mountains, without tickets, demanding to be boarded? For how long would civilized norms prevail?

What if they took the rafts by force of numbers and approached the boat in a flotilla? If you’re the boat captain, do you weigh anchor and leave the island, knowing you would be abandoning ticket-holders on shore? If you let the first raft of refugees on, because there’s still a little room, how do you say no to the second, third and fifteenth rafts?  If you say yes to the women, but no to the men, how do you enforce that?  Are you willing to shoot someone in the head with a flare gun, to set an example?  Would that deter the others?  How many flares do you have in that gun, anyway?

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How soon before the boat turns into this?

What do I do? Sunburned, tired, a little sea sick already from bobbing like a cork in the sea caves,  am I going to resort to physical force to prize our places on a raft?   Secretly, would Mrs. UpintheValley want me to?  I didn’t marry a broad-shouldered man for no reason, darling. Save us!  Who would I be willing to step over to grapple aboard?

When we reach the boat and find it already to listing to the side, overloaded with human cargo, are we willing to be that last pair of hands that causes it to capsize? Do we do the bravest thing and swim back to shore and try our luck on kayaks, three days of paddling back to Ventura in open water?

My armchair bravery is such that I of course would do just that. I would row Mrs. U to safety like Frederic ferrying Catherine to Switzerland in a A Farewell to Arms. It would be my finest hour.

Right up to the moment in the swirling darkness of that first night….as the refugees of the capsized boat, dog paddling in pure fear, catch sight of the kayak in the moonlight and begin to approach.  Then all I have is my oar, my pocketknife and a will to live.

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