Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Rain, Rain...come again another day

It is so dry here lately that two of my neighbors recently commented that they spent more on their water bills last month than their electric bills. That is impressive given the sheer number of 100+ degree days and the fact that AC aint cheap in that kind of weather.

We haven't crossed that line, as evidenced by the color of our lawn. Or what is left of our lawn. We have an inground sprinkler system, but large swaths of our grass are still dying because we water for only 15 minutes every other day (an excessive amount, in my opinion...if I have to have grass I would prefer it stay nice with maybe one sprinkling a week...stop laughing...)

The neighbors who are taking out mortgages with the water company? The ones with the lush green grass? Probably twice a day. (One was actively sowing grass seed while we chatted. Not sure he had any bare patches or that it would germinate in this heat, but what do I know). One side of our house benefits nicely from the runoff from our next door neighbor's daily watering (and probably the runoff of their fertilizer too, and the shadiness provided by two houses), so some of our grass is lush and green.

I just can't do it. Parts of St. Louis have been under mandatory or voluntary water conservation for a month or more. Not our little town, but still. I can't justify making my lawn lush during a severe drought so bad I've driven past huge fields of corn that are already brown in the field. What is the point? Green it up so I can have the pleasure of looking at it? So my son can trample through it and possibly dig it up with a toy shovel? So that we can have the pleasure of mowing more often in 90+ degree heat?

Sure, our part of the county tends to be floodprone and has some nearby natural wetlands (We have blue and white herons who regularly visit the pond that is behind our neighborhood). Living so close to confluence of three rivers (Missouri, Mississippi, and the Meramac) generally keeps the whole metro area humid and green even in the triple-digits temperatures of July and August. I imagine that water rationing seems kind of foreign with so much water around us.

I have been trying a few techniques for conserving some water. Silly, minor things like emptying the kids camp water bottles onto my flowers out front instead of down the sink (I figure that whatever gunk Trystan gets into his every day might even fertilize the plants). I put a bucket in the shower the other day and easily filled it with the excess water just from starting up the shower. But I am not sure that shower-temperature water was a good idea for the garden (too hot), and my husband objects to the bucket for aesthetic reasons (somewhere, perhaps, I have a less unsightly one that I used in college for toting shampoo to the dorm bathroom).

I have a water barrel sitting next to my veggie garden, and a kit to hook it into the closest downspout. (The kit is in the kitchen, still in the box) In our last house, I got my veggie garden to self-water with water barrel, soaker hose, and an automatic garden timer. I should feel guilty about not yet installing the one at the new house, except it hasn't rained anyway. I guess I could pour my shower water into that instead of straight on the plants.

Some small-minded part of me is half-hoping for mandatory water conservation to go into effect for us, just to watch those coddled lawns wither and die the day they shut off the sprinklers. Not because I dislike my neighbors, but because I think their watering choices are a tad selfish and short-sighted and that they won't recognize that until they are forced to face the reality of it. (Though I doubt they'd go down without a fight).

But really, I'm just hoping for rain. For all of us.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A House With Character

Subtitle: Defending New Suburban Construction

When we first began toying with the idea of moving last year, there were three main possibilities:

1) find a home near to our existing neighborhood with the features we were looking for (a bigger, flatter lot, nicer kitchen or good "bones" in which to add a nicer kitchen, and a bigger garage and/or more storage for stuff like lawn mowers and bikes)

2) Look for a house roughly equivalent to what we already had (which was not really too small and did have plenty of good points) but in a much upgraded school district (for the STL-area readers, I mean something like Clayton or Ladue schools)


3) Get a nicer house, nicer yard and a school district upgrade by moving to St. Charles County.

When we decided on option 3, we got a few raised eyebrows from our college friends. We tend to run with a fairly progressive crowd, by far and large more Democrat than Republican, more liberal than conservative, more urban re-development than suburban settlement. And my husband and I tend to agree with most of those principles as well.

So why did we contribute to suburban sprawl?

1. Lot size. In the St. Louis inner-suburban areas that we would have considered, in general you get tiny houses on tiny lots. Or you spend a cool million or more on something more. Comfortable as our salaries are, we are nowhere near that "cool million" level. There are not-as-inner suburbs where a middle-class family can afford more than three blades of grass, and the ones that appealed most to us were in St. Charles County.

2. Patchwork houses.  Lovers of old houses call this "character". I looked at pictures of aqua carpet, green countertops, pink tile, and other assorted "character" as work to be done.

We had a very brief flirtation with a massive fixer-upper house near the border of U City and Clayton. Good square footage, all brick, double lot, "charm" and "character", a great asking price, a kitchen out of the 80's, bathrooms whose grout was well beyond cleanable, and a basement full of asbestos.

We looked at another one near our neighborhood that had the lot size and square footage we were looking for, plus the price was reasonable. And every room in the place had a different style/color/species of flooring and a different color of paint. The former owners had added on here, tacked on there, re-worked this into that.  The result? Franken-house.

A brand-new house is a blank slate. Walls do not need wallpaper stripped or multiple layers of primer to cover strange paint colors. Floors are level, free of stains and wear. Cabinetry has not been damaged. Basements have never been flooded. Walls do not have a million nail holes or patch marks. Maybe those things add character. But I like that I don't have to remove unwanted character prior to adding my own.

3. Funny smells.  Maybe I'm too picky.  Or maybe I have a thing with smells. But other people's houses smell funny. They smell like people, like pets, like sewer gasses, like cooking spices. Like sweaty feet. You can walk into a house and tell right away if a dog lives there, or if the occupants ever smoked in the house (it seeps into the paint and the ceilings and the ductwork and the dust.) You can tell if they eat a lot of curry, wear a lot of perfume, think fresh cut flowers liven up a place (cut flowers make me sad, and also make my nose run and my chest constrict).

 I'm sure my house smells funny too. But it smells like us. And a newly-built house is wonderfully strange-smell-free.

4. The "cookie cutter" myth. Why do anti-suburbanites claim that in the suburbs, all houses look alike? I've driven through streets in south St. Louis, Creve Coeur, Clayton, U.City, the Central West End, etc where every house looks alike. Not identical--there are variations in siding and landscaping, and over time the subtle differences get amplified with additions, outbuildings, screen porches, new window styles, etc. But anytime there is a neighborhood where houses were built at a similar time, by a similar group of builders, then the houses tend to resemble each other.  In some neighborhoods, you can guess by the outside what the inside layout looks like.

The same is true in planned subdivisions in the suburbs. I don't think its a bad thing. It is merely a predictable thing. Houses are single story, multiple stories, different colors, different yards. I don't actually want my house to stand out from the crowd.

5. Maturity of landscapes. Unless we move (again), my kids will never have a treehouse. We have no trees that large. Even in the 12-year-old house we moved out of, the largest tree on our lot would barely have supported any climbing. The new house has (half-dead) grass, and a few dozen seedling trees. Hopefully in the next year or two we will add some larger trees to that list. I do not consider our lack of mature landscaping to be a downside. In fact, it gives us a blank slate. If we want to keep the middle of our backyard free of obstacles for playing volleyball, we can.

There is a certain appeal to being the caretaker of towering trees. It also brings the risks of strong winds, messy cleanup, and extra expense for changing a home's outdoor spaces.  And we have hopes of at some point adding some solar power to our home. Had we bought a house shaded by mature trees, that would be an impossibility. This way, we can be smart about our planting.

6. Communities planned for the way we live. I have no desire to walk to a grocery store. I'd be limited to bringing home only what I could carry, and have to shop several times a week to keep the fridge stocked for the family. I do not have that kind of time.

And I do not care to live near where I work. If I had a community-focused career (something like a doctor or a teacher), then the idea would be great. But I have a career that supports working for large corporations. Large corporations do not make good neighbors, and I have no desire to move next door to an industrial park. I want to live in a nice residential area.

Maybe someday in the future, hubby and I will revisit the idea of a fixer-upper, or a down-sized house with lots of charm in a older, established neighborhood. But for our lives now, I'm pretty happy with our choice: a blank slate in the suburbs where we can add our own charm, plan our own landscape, make our own memories (and strange smells, lol). We got a good school district, a reasonable house payment, a nice community, and room to grow. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Voice of an Individual

I hesitate to join big political debates. You might think that's funny as I have no problem talking about baby poop and breast feeding and other, more personal topics. That's the thing. When I talk about a personal experience, I'm the expert. It is my experience. But if I try to offer an opinion on something bigger than me, I open myself up to all kinds of potential criticism, arguments, ubiquitous internet trolls, and opinionated family members.

I'm not a lawyer, a politician, a policymaker, or even a dabbler in any of those fields. My expertise is in making stuff out of nothing. I write fiction, I write software, I cook, I have babies. And I get more than enough negative feedback on the way I do all of those things already. Why bother stepping into a debate where I have no expertise, no platform, no big organization backing me up. But that's my whole point. I am just one person. And I wish to speak out on behalf of all the other "just one persons" out there.

Every article I read lately about religious freedom pits a large organization against an individual. The Churches and employers want "freedom of religion" in picking and choosing what kinds of healthcare its employees can choose. It makes no sense to me.

When people found companies, organizations, churches, and the like, they form something separate from people. Something different. Something new. Organizations become beings unto themselves, with agendas and motivations of their own. They even become legal entities that can act in courts similar to how individual people can. Some companies like to tout how connected they are with their employees,  but that doesn't make the company human. Quite the opposite. In order to need a "connection" with human beings, the company admits that it is not one.

Why do companies and religious organizations have rights that equal or supercede those of human beings? Why would anyone allow them to claim that they do?

How does an organization--a complex combination of money, assets, bylaws, and activities that depends on people and yet is not a person--how does such a thing require religious freedom? The individuals who are employed by it, who run it, who speak for it, who guide it--they are the ones for whom the protection should be afforded. 

A church defines a religion, it doesn't practice one itself. A company might be made up of warehouses or office equipment, intellectual property, money--the company does not go to church. How could it? The company, the church, the club or non-profit, or whatever other category of organization--none of these entities require medical care. None will ever develop cancer, appendicitis, have a baby, require a living will. Only the people that belong to such organizations--as patrons, employees, investors, owners, donors--only the people require the protection of religious freedom.

The biggest danger at election time is that the individuals running for office can be easily swayed by big organizations with big checkbooks. Big organizations who claim to speak for individuals, but really speak for only themselves. And the winners of the elections stand in a precarious position. They themselves will become the spokespeople for not just themselves, but for the people they represent. It is a position that teeters on the line between representing a collection of individuals, and representing some larger organization. A "State". A "City". A "Nation".

My hope for the election year, and for all election years, is that the individuals who end up in office will remember that individuals put them there. And that lawmakers will remember to protect people over companies, human beings over organizations. Individuals vote, not companies.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

All Our Moments Are Sharp

So, early last week I started a post about the various things we've been up to this summer. Some various new experiences for the kids (Cardinals game, Six Flags, fishing). Some non-news (we still own two houses). We celebrated our eleventh anniversary with an indoor barbeque (because it was 108 outside and we're just not that mean to our friends).  We've been busy at work with looming deadlines. I'm totally not writing any fiction (which sucks because I would like to but can't seem to string together more than ten minutes in a week and it takes that long to get my ancient laptop booted up anymore).

Then Monday night at dinner time, my husband got an upset stomach. We had eaten BBQ leftovers for dinner, so I immediately suspected food poisoning and began cleaning out the fridge. Tuesday he stayed home and barely answered the phone. By the time the kids and I got home from work and camp, he hurt too bad to sit up or walk.

We have now visited the nearby hospital's emergency room. And hubby has had his appendix privileges revoked. (Or maybe I should say that he had the most painful and least effective form of weight loss surgery. Or that he had a useless organ removed, though that sort of wording tends to lead to lewd jokes).

Happily, we got him there before the thing ruptured, and nowadays appendectomies are done laproscopically. So he is now the tummy-scar-winner of the family, with three individual incisions vs my single (though twice-used) C-section one and Trystan's dual scars from colostomy and his own emergency laproscopic bowel surgery at age 3 months. I hope to God that Charlotte never attempts to follow the rest of the family's lead and get any of her own. Her unblemished belly is quite nice as it is.

This is the first time I've had to deal with an adult in the hosptial besides myself. I had a funny moment when I realized that every doctor, nurse, aide, anesthesiologist, etc were directing their questions to my husband instead of me, and that I didn't need to answer anything. Which makes sense, of course, as I am married to a competent adult who is capable of taking charge of his own healthcare. But prior to Tuesday/Wednesday we had a total of eight surgeries in the family over eight years that involved either me or my children. I'm always the one answering the questions. Now that I think about it, my husband did have one outpatient procedure a couple of years ago, but I wasn't really there for it.

He is home and doing really well. We are both just tired--me from staying up all night in the hospital and doing a crazy amount of driving to keep the kids on a normal-ish schedule. And hubby because he actually had all the pain, inflammation, and surgery and all that.

So, hopefully soon we will be back to our regularly-scheduled crazy lives. We have a groupon for Rascals tickets that we haven't yet managed to use. And a new roof and hopefully siding (plus a bonus ceiling repair due to leaky roof) coming soon on our old house. I guess I need to hire a landscaper to start mowing it, as I have proven myself incapable of doing the hill, and my husband is barred from doing that sort of thing for a few weeks. And, of course, the stores are starting to get school supplies in so I guess I need to start thinking about class lists, school uniforms, and backpacks.