Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Life in Military Housing, Part I

When we were in the military and had to live on base, we resided in housing built half a century ago.

Have you ever watched any of the one hundred and eighteen different types of remodeling shows on that home and garden cable channel? Of all those one hundred and eighteen shows, eighty-six have the root word “design” in the title, the remaining thirty-two “decorate.” Whether it’s design or decorate, I loved to watch them all, and dream of the day when I could have a home of my own to do all the things the people on those programs seemed to have so much fun doing.

The camera would follow a house-hunting husband and wife into a cute 1940’s cottage, a cozy 1930’s bungalow, or even a charming 1920’s craftsman house boasting one of them new-fangled Kelvinators, and the enchanted wife would sigh blissfully and say, “I love the rest of the house, especially the hardwood floors . . .”

“I like the detached garage,” the husband chimes in. “It’s the perfect place for me to work on my boat.” Where they currently live, he has no place to work on his boat, which he keeps parked in his friend’s backyard. His friend’s wife would like to see the boat removed and replaced with a koi pond and pergola, but that’s for another program on the same channel.

“But the kitchen really needs updating,” the wife says.

As much as we delight in quaint d├ęcor and believe in preserving the past, we women do appreciate having updated kitchens.

By program’s end, they’ve gutted and removed everything that doesn’t date back to next week, and the house that was built during the Coolidge Administration now has a kitchen bearing an uncanny resemblance to the bridge on the Starship Enterprise—the NCC-1701-D model, for those of you Trekkies who tend to be particular about these things.

And somehow, they always manage to do it all for just under two thousand dollars.

You can’t do any of that in military housing. After you move out, and before the next family moves in, the military might put in a new toilet seat . . . for over two thousand dollars.

The house we occupied on base still retained much of its New Deal era charm, though over time, the square footage had been reduced significantly with each new coat of paint applied to the interior walls whenever the house changed hands—usually every two to three years, and always in an off-blah white. Residents were forbidden to be creative and use colored paint or wallpaper. Consistency and uniformity in all areas of our lives, even on our walls—these were the things that kept our happy little Air Force flying.

We were allowed to make minor little improvements—like installing a vanity around a sink that otherwise had nothing beneath it but ugly pipes—but only with the commander’s approval (someone in authority would have to come in and inspect it after it was installed), and only using materials from what was known in the Air Force as the “self-help store.” This was like a hardware store on the base, where everything was free, but you had to be a resident of military housing to patronize it. In keeping with the aforementioned uniformity in all things, you couldn’t choose between Early American or French Provincial or whatever era you were going for. There was only one style available, best described as “Eleanor Roosevelt Colonial.”

Military housing residents could not buy remodeling materials from a hardware or home improvement store off base, because (1) the government would not reimburse you for your purchase, and (2) whatever item you bought there—like replacement tiles for the kitchen or bathroom—would very likely not be a design authorized by the government, and you would be ordered to remove it and reimburse the government for any damage incurred, as well as the cost for replacing it properly.

But who would want to pick out tiles like those used in military housing? All floors still had the original, albeit formerly white tiles flecked with streaks of gray for that cheap faux marble look—though after so many decades, it was hard to distinguish the flecks and streaks from the rest of the tile. This same cold, dull tile was laid all through the house—living room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom. We bought lots of area rugs.

Furthermore, what self-respecting off-base establishment of the twenty-first century would stock that hideous design? They probably discontinued selling it after World War II. Yet somewhere, some defense contractor continues manufacturing them exclusively for the military.

Ideally these floors were supposed to be waxed and buffed at least once a week. Ideally. Theoretically. And only if you got down on your hands and knees with a pile of old rags and buffed the floors manually.

It’s one thing having to do that with fifty other people during boot camp—which I did, and it was called a “G.I. Party”—but quite another when you have two active children and a lot of other, more important things to do with your life. Then it’s no party at all.

“For God’s sake, Karen,” you say, “this is the twenty-first century already. Haven’t you ever heard of ‘buffers’?”

Buffers? Oh, those things! Huge electric monsters that spin along the floor and, unless you weigh at least two hundred pounds and bench press twelve thousand, will spin you along with them till your spinal cord is severed. Yes, I’ve heard of them. But hearing of ain’t seeing, and it definitely ain’t having—at least not on a military installation.

Next entry: The Quest for a Floor Buffer

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Laptop is fixed--and all is Write with the World

The repair shop called last Thursday with the news that the replacement screen had come in for my laptop. So we brought them the laptop, and in an unusual burst of optimism, I thought they could replace it right there on the spot.

But no, the clerk said, “It should be ready this evening or sometime tomorrow.”

That’s what I get for trying to see the glass as half full. I keep telling all you perky and peppy, cheery and chirpy Pollyannas there’s something to be said for pessimism. It saves you so much disappointment.

It wasn’t ready by that evening. Nor was it ready the next day, and I started going through severe withdrawal. I couldn’t write. Everything I had was on the laptop. And while it was backed up on zip drive, what could I do with Mr. Zippy? Mr. Lucky’s desktop no longer had a word processing program, because several months ago, the desktop crashed and everything on it was lost. Even my website. Oh, it’s still there, if you click on the link. But Mr. Lucky says he’ll have to rebuild it from scratch before I can post any updates to it. He never backed it up and has no record of the exact colors, etc.


Miraculously, I could still do e-mail and surf the Internet on the desktop. At least now I had a guilt-free good excuse to goof off at all my favorite goof-off sites.

On Saturday afternoon I came home from TARA, freshly motivated to do some serious writing. But the computer repair shop still hadn’t called, and they were closed on Sundays. I was started to get frazzled. I felt as if I were missing a vital body part.

Monday was my birthday, and Mr. Lucky took me to lunch at my favorite restaurant, The Olive Garden. We didn’t tell them it was my birthday, because I didn’t want the entire staff coming out and crowding around our booth to bang pots and sing songs or anything else that would call attention to me and the new ring around my trunk.

Afterward, Mr. Lucky suggested swinging by the computer repair shop to see if my laptop was ready, since it seemed they were never going to call. Sure enough, it was all set. Whereas the old screen was no-glare, the new one is shiny. I was worried I’d see my reflection in it every time I opened it, but my fears were unfounded. Once it boots up, it looks no different than the no-glare.

And I started writing again. And writing. Writing!

Getting it back was the best part of my birthday. Well, maybe next to The Olive Garden’s Black Tie Mousse Cake.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guess Whose Birthday?

You Are a Philosopher

You're incredibly introverted and introspective. You live inside your head.

You spend a lot of alone time meditating and thinking.

People see you as withdrawn, and at times they are right.

You are caring and deep, but it may be difficult for you to show this side of yourself.

Your strength: Your original approach to thinking

Your weakness: You tend to shy away from others

Your power color: Pale blue

Your power symbol: Wavy line

Your power month: July

Monday, March 9, 2009

My Laptop Screen Burns Out

I am a neurotic fiend about closing my laptop if I think I’m going to be away from it for more than 15-20 minutes. Part of the reason for this is to make it less attractive to the marauding Baby Bear, who on at least one occasion flipped Mr. Lucky’s open laptop to the floor.

My laptop is three years old and one of my prized possessions, so I treat it as I would a piece of fine crystal or delicate porcelain. It’s never even been out of the house except when I took it to a TARA writers’ retreat in Sarasota last year. I usually work at a desk, but occasionally I’ll unplug the laptop from the AC adapter and sit in an armchair with it.

That’s exactly what I did on Thursday when I made my last blog entry, and the screen started flashing and flickering in a very annoying manner. It stopped when I set it back on the desk and plugged it back in. Mr. Lucky surmised it might be the battery. Yet he replaced it only three months ago.

At 5:30 pm, I left the laptop and locked my office (again, to keep out Baby Bear who’s always ransacking Mr. Lucky’s). I cooked dinner, we ate the dinner, watched the news and a couple of Seinfeld reruns followed by Survivor (some of those people would never last in the military); then at 9 pm I returned to my office.

To my dismay, I’d left my laptop wide open for over three hours—something I never did—and the screen was black.

I tapped buttons, closed the lid and opened it again; I even rebooted it—but no picture lit up the screen. Not even the computer geekery of Mr. Lucky could bring it back to life. The screen was kaput.

Of course, I was convinced this happened because I left it open all that time—never mind Mr. Lucky leaves his own laptop agape 24/7. He declared it was going to happen no matter what, and it was probably just as well that it fizzled out when it did. Had it done so when I was in the middle of writing something, I might have lost the work, since I couldn’t see anything to save it.

Which brings us to the inevitable awkward moment all writers have at one time or another: “You do have everything backed up, don’t you?” he asked, in a tone of voice that clearly indicated he already knew the answer was, “Of course not, because I’m a lazy procrastinating idiot who never learns.”

Only the current WIP wasn't backed up, but all was not lost if it was, in fact—well, lost. I’ve only written four chapters and a “sucknopsis” as Anne-Marie so aptly puts it; my critique partner has seen three of them as well as the sucknopsis, and her corrected copies were still in my e-mail folder (I never clean out my e-mail folder, either). At worst I’d have to rewrite Chapter 4 off the top of my head.

I’ve had to rewrite whole chapters off the top of my head before. It’s no fun, though it still beats cleaning soap scum off the shower tiles.

The next day, Mr. Lucky took it to a computer repair place where he’s done business before, and they determined it needed new bulbs, yet it would be cheaper just to replace the whole screen.

Until the new screen arrives, he’s hooked up his desktop monitor to my laptop. Watching him do this nearly freaked me out. He opened my laptop flat—I’ve never opened my laptop flat before—and I almost screamed as if he were King Solomon about to rip my baby in half. (I know what my problem is—I don’t have enough chocolate in my diet.)

“It’s designed to do that,” he assured me.

Yes, but why? I can only think of one reason to open your laptop flat, and that’s so you can hook it up to a desktop monitor because your laptop screen burned out after you carelessly left it open for more than three hours. Mr. Lucky: "FOR THE LAST TIME--" (in his dreams) "--THAT'S NOT WHY IT BURNED OUT!"

Either way, those computer geeks think of everything, don't they?
Since the problem was only the screen, no work was lost. But having been chastened by this event (which is not to say I've finally learned the importance of always backing up work), I promptly added the WIP to the zip drive.
Mr. Lucky's final piece of sage advice? "Don't try moving all of this to your armchair."
He thinks of everything, too--except securing his own keep against the incursions of a certain Bear.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Baby Bear's Gone Wild

The autistic Baby Bear is prone to head banging. Unfortunately, he's so good at it that over time he's managed to put holes through the drywall in his bedroom, which Mr. Lucky patched as seen below:

As you can see, Baby Bear has a system. He bangs till he makes one hole, then he steps to one side and starts work on another, till he's banged out a nice row of holes.

More recently, he's taken to lying on his bed and kicking his feet against the wall, leaving these lower holes:
Clearly, drywall and Baby Bears do not mix. We've searched the usual home improvement places in hopes of replacing his walls with wood panels, reminiscent of the paneling that was so fashionable in the '60's and '70's. But we can't find it anywhere, anymore than we can find shag carpeting, orange polyurethane chairs, or kitchen appliances in our choice of Avocado, Harvest Gold, or Coppertone.
Yet the local oldies station still plays disco on Saturday nights.
In the meantime, we're settling for this:

Eventually, I'd like to see the boards painted, perhaps in different colors. They're thicker than the paneling I remember from my childhood, so with luck they'll be more impervious to Bear's hard head and big feet. And even if we'd found the more attractive (and undoubtedly more expensive) paneling, I would still be concerned that eventually he'd break through it and then we'd have a major splinter problem.
If this doesn't work, our next stop is a brick wall and a cask of Mr. Poe's best Amontillado--for me, of course!