Thursday, September 29, 2016

Eddie Mendoza Rides Into the Sunset

Wow. What started out as a provisional, possibly very temporary character in what was meant to be a brief, transitional RPG campaign has finally reached his appointed ending over two years later.

I've written before (here, here, and here) about Eddie Mendoza, Freelance Reporter, Seeker of the Strange. And while I don't want to rehash everything I wrote in those three posts, I do want to go briefly back over the entire evolution, just to get it summarized in words in one place and get my feelings down now that it's over.

As I said before, Eddie was supposed to be temporary, a placeholder. I have been meeting at least once a week with the same gaming group for, fuck, over eight years now. Two years ago, our previous game campaign had kind of blown up over some personal drama at about the same time that I had been getting very burned out with my character and the campaign. So I had enjoyed having those evenings free during the several week hiatus that followed the ending of that campaign.When Sargon mentioned that he was going to start a new, kind of temporary campaign about monster hunters with a piece of the former gaming group, I was reluctant to commit to it.

But I decided to create a provisional character anyway. Sargon mentioned that the game would be taking place in Wraithport, a haunted city in Washington State (like Seattle, but not). Thinking of Seattle and monster hunters reminded me of a TV movie from the 1970's called The Night Strangler. A sequel to the previous The Night Stalker, the movie was about newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak on the trail of a mysterious monster that was strangling women and draining some of their blood. The two TV movies inspired a follow-up TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (like The Thin Man or The Pink Panther, somehow the original title referring to something else entirely had grafted itself onto the main character), that leaned a little too hard on the Monster of the Week formula and turned silly by the end, but is still fondly remembered by fans, including me.

So I decided to create a Kolchak-type character, which got a dubious look from Sargon, who said that everyone else would be playing high-powered spell casters. A reporter would not really be able to hold his own in that group. But I argued, a) I can give him some wicked weapon skills and a couple of magical artifacts he'd collected on his earlier adventures, and b) I don't know how long I'll be playing him anyway, so who cares? If he's too weak to be fun, we can just write him out and I get my evenings free again.

And so came Eddie Mendoza to Wraithport, where he hooked up with a group of people (ish) that he didn't particularly like or trust, but he stuck with them to get a really big scoop of a story. But especially in those early days, he made sure to remind everyone as often as possible that he was just there temporarily and might be leaving at any time.

And something weird happened. Eddie started to like this group of weirdos that he had hooked up with, and even more, he started to feel needed. In those earliest days, because of his news gathering skills, he assumed a kind of leadership role in the group, pointing them in the ways they needed to go to get this puzzle solved. And also, very improbably, thanks to some smart use of the special combat perks that had been introduced for this game, Eddie got a reputation as the badass in the group.

And I started to get really invested in the character, taking him to heart as perhaps the most personal character I had ever played. Eddie dealt with crises of conscience (working with demons and giving up his journalism career once he realized he had gone from reporting the truth to serving as a spin doctor covering up the group's adventures). Eddie dealt with crises of faith (working with demons and pledging to serve not one, but two different magical beings not named Jesus).  Eddie dealt with PTSD from fighting some incredibly powerful and scary beings. And Eddie began to develop a belief in destiny, thanks to some prophetic dreams and a trip to a storybook land where things worked by storybook rules.

Eddie found himself trapped between two conflicting certainties: that he had met the woman he was destined to fall in love with, and that he was going to die in the very near future, making a relationship with that woman impossible in his eyes, or at the very least, unacceptably cruel. So Eddie the Loner, who had suddenly found what seemed to be a new family, forced himself to remain Eddie the Loner as much as possible, to spare everyone's feelings. There are people who think that the whole unrequited love thing is a ridiculous trope, that no one would willingly put themselves through that. But Eddie and I are romantics with immense esteem issues, and we did exactly that, and I kind of loved it. Eddie Mendoza, the Tragically Romantic Monster-Head Blower-Offer.

By the end of the game, of course, Sargon's predictions of Eddie's inferiority proved true enough, but it wasn't too bad, and it was a blast getting there. And even though Eddie the Loner kind of disappeared into the background of the game for long stretches, he did get his big final moment, riding off into the sunset for a new destiny with the promise of a fresh start with his new family when he finally returned. A clean fate slate.

And now we're looking to begin a new game next week, in a milieu that I originally wasn't very keen on (pirates), but I am excited about my new character, Shem the Mouse (which is repetitive - Shem means "mouse" in the game tongue--I was originally going to have it mean "rat" but I think that's a little too aggressive for my character's personality), and about the many ways I plan to abuse the new rules system we're trying out (I have over a page of notes of strategies I want to try).

But I'm finding it hard to leave Eddie completely behind. Like Dougal Smeaton, I have played Eddie for so long that he has become a part of me, and I can't just give him up cold turkey. And I don't really have to. I still have his journal unfinished that I plan to get back into at some point. I've even thought about writing a separate story, maybe a novella, but it feels weird, like some kind of super esoteric fanfic for an audience of me.

Oh well, it's time to give Eddie some well-deserved rest and start a new adventure. Onward.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A New Video Series

So I've taken a couple of stabs at video in the past, but I'm giving another shot, and I think my best so far. I have a co-worker who has a Youtube channel that he is constantly hyping, and he has been encouraging me to get back into it. Also, I have been wanting to develop my video editing skills as a way of expanding my skillset at work, so this seemed like a good opportunity.

The new series launched today on Youtube, with the umbrella title, "Hero Go Home Presents..." The first video, about symbolism in Spider-Man 2, is here: Hero Go Home Presents Spider-Man 2: Roses & Reflections

I had tried several different editing programs in the past, but had never really gotten very good results. I had an old copy of Sony Vegas that I had barely started to learn, but the learning curve was really steep. Movie Maker just always felt like a slog.  The basic version of Cyberlink PowerDirector that came installed on my laptop was okay, but very basic. So I looked around for something new.

I edited this first video and the second in the series using a piece of freeware called VSDC Video Editor. I really liked the program in a lot of ways: it was easy to learn and easy to use, so that I was able to do a lot of advanced techniques that I wouldn't have thought to try before.

The big problem with VSDC, though, was that it was very crash-prone. So for my third video, I thought I would look for something else. And I hit on something called DaVinci Resolve. Resolve got its start as professional color-grading software and has developed into a full-featured professional editing program that is free as long as basically only one person is using it. The Studio version, which allows sharing of projects among several people, costs $995. Blackmagic Design, the company that makes Resolve, also sells control devices for use with the software that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Upgrading to Resolve was a big step up. In some ways, it felt like I was starting from scratch again, but I really like working with Resolve. The big hurdle to making the switch was that Resolve can't read the clips I capture, so I had to buy a video conversion program. Both the converted clips and the output are much bigger files. But the video I made this week, the third in the series, is in HD and looks a lot better than the previous ones I did on VSDC. Also, only one crash while making it, as opposed to 10-20 for the other videos.

So as of right now, I'm very happy with Resolve, and I hope that this new series of videos clicks with people in away that my previous efforts have not.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Powers Be Creepin'

I've talked a couple of times (here and here) about the table-top RPG I'm currently playing, where I play a reporter-turned-demon-hunter named Eddie Mendoza. And I mentioned my abuse of some experimental new rules that turned Eddie into a terror with a pistol, but I didn't go very far into the odd effect that has had on the game.

First, some history: the game is loosely based on the Chaosium Basic Rules, with lots of modifications thrown in from not only specific Chaosium games like Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, but also other role-playing games like D&D and Champions,

Sargon the GM had played one-on-one with Naamah for years before inviting other people (including me) to join the game. During that time, they had evolved a complicated and very high-powered magic system for the game. My first exposure to the magic system was in the second campaign I was in, our Atlantis game (which I've written about several times on this blog, more than I care to list ATM).

 At that time, an issue revealed itself in regard to the magic system: it was way overpowered compared to the rest of the game. This had never been a problem for Sargon and Naamah. As long as the game only had one player; there was no party balance to disrupt. But as events progressed in Atlantis, combats often became a matter of trying not to die while waiting for the mage to have her turn and wipe out the opposition. The enemies kept getting more and more ridiculously overpowered to challenge the mages while us humans progressed more slowly, occasionally running across magic items to give us a little more oomph.

The next two campaigns avoided magic altogether in favor of a new psionic power system and superpowers. But then along came the Wraithport game, which would obviously involve magic. How to solve the game imbalance issues, then?

Well, as it turned out, in a couple of ways. Number one, by having everybody in the party (with one exception named Mendoza) be magic-users (one character was part-demon who, while not knowing spells per se, had many spell-like powers that behaved pretty much like de facto magic spells). If all of the players are using magic, it doesn't matter how powerful magic is compared to other weapons and skills.

Sargon also adopted a new, slower advancement system for learning new (and higher-powered) spells to keep players from getting the really ridiculous high-level spells too soon.

And third, by adopting a set of optional combat talents to allow weapons combat to be more potent and flexible. It was by clever use of this third option that I was able to make Eddie Mendoza, who at first glance seemed destined to be totally outclassed and useless in combat, to be a useful contributing member of the party (thanks in large part to a magic pistol with some truly potent bonuses that the combat talents were able to amplify to ludicrous levels).

And somewhere along the way, something strange happened. Eddie Mendoza, the mundane character who was supposed to have been the weakest of the group, came to be seen as the "big gun" (pun intended). The same magic system that had seemed so overpowered in Atlantis now seemed strangely underpowered. That slowed-down magic advancement system now seemed too slow.

So new systems were introduced to make magic more potent. Magic talents were introduced to give magic some of the extra flexibility and impact that Eddie had enjoyed with the combat talents. And a new magic casting system was introduced to let magic do the same kind of absurd damage that Eddie could do when the dice smiled on him.

That shifted the balance back to magic again. Eddie in the last few game sessions has been relatively useless compared to the mages, and in the next session will be starting without the array of magic items that make him even marginally useful compared to them. But his skills and talents continue to develop, so at some point, he may pass a crucial break point that will make him bad-ass again. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Those AIG Tweets, an Identity So Far Hopefully Unstolen, and Unknowns Known and Unknown

So Sunday night, in the middle of a completely unrelated personal drama, I opened an envelope that I expected would be junk mail. The return address said "American General Life Insurance," and since I don't have a policy with American General, I figured it was an offer to sell me insurance. But it also had the no-frills look of some of those financial come-ons from no-name companies, the ones that have a check inside for thousands of dollars that constitutes an instant loan for godawful interest.

So I decided  to open it to see if it was something I needed to destroy. But instead of an ad or a check, it was a bill, asking me for a payment of $25 against a loan of $3160, made against my life insurance policy.

Two problems:

1. I never took out a loan against my life insurance because...

2. I had never bought a life insurance policy from American General.

My first thought was that someone actually had stolen one of those "checks" from my mailbox and cashed it, leaving me on the hook to repay their loan. But thinking more about the way it was worded, that I owed for a loan against my policy, I thought maybe my identity had been stolen.

The notice included an 800 number to call as well as a website. So I decided to check out the website and see if it was at all legitimate. And it was weird. The website was for AIG, which is a huge insurance company. But when I checked the phone numbers and addresses on the website, nothing quite matched the notice I'd gotten in the mail.  The 800 number didn't match any of the numbers I found on different pages of the website, and although both the website and the mailed notice had P.O. Boxes in Nashville TN, they were different numbers.

This was not definitive proof of anything either way, though. Big companies have lots of phone numbers and boxes. But there was nothing that confirmed this was a legitimate notice, either. Even the second page, giving some further information about the company, listed the abbreviation for the company as AGL rather than AIG. So was this a legitimate notice or a clever hoax designed to look like it was from the big company?

I ended up getting very frustrated and sending out an angry tweet worded thus:

Received a notice from a fraud factory called American General Life Insurance, which may be @AIGInsurance. Interesting business plan.

A follow-up tweet went on to mention that they had gone straight to the billing phase, without ever doing the provide-goods-and-services part, but it doesn't look like that tweet actually went out.

I sat around stewing all the next day, because it was Presidents' Day, and AIG wasn't open. But I did receive a reply to my tweet early Tuesday morning, asking me to call a particular number. I called the number and went to the voicemail of someone named Stacy Golden, who was out of the office, but if this was urgent, I could call another number and talk to a different representative. So I called the different number, which took me back to the same voicemail. Which started me wondering again if this was all part of some really elaborate hoax.

I finally called the number from the AIG website, stayed on hold forever, and talked to a rep who finally confirmed that yes, a policy did exist under the policy number listed on my notice. And when I protested that I had never taken out a policy, she told me a detail that made some pieces fall into place.

The policy had been taken out in 1965. I was two years old at the time.

So this was a policy that my parents had taken out on me that I had no knowledge of. But it still didn't explain the loan. She had to transfer me to a specialist to deal with the loan part, though. After another ten minutes on hold, I got more of the story.

There had been no premiums paid on the policy since 2002. And since it was a whole life policy, it didn't lapse if the premium wasn't paid. Instead, the premium would be paid out of a "loan" taken out against the cash value of the policy. And so the amount had grown for 14 years, from unpaid premiums and accumulated interest on that unrepaid amount every year, until I owed over $3000 against a $5000 policy.

I called my dad and he said, yeah, there was a policy, but he thought they had been taking the premium payments out of his bank account automatically.

So now I'm faced with a few possible courses of action, none of them very satisfactory. I can do nothing, have the debt continue to pile up until it exceeds the value of the policy, at which point they sic collectors on me maybe? I can pay the debt and continue to pay premiums and receive a $5000 payment once it matures when I'm 65. I can just pay the premium and annual interest (about $200 a year) until it matures and receive an $1800 payout. Or I can cash out the policy now, before it has matured. I don't get as much money, only about $175, but I don't have to worry about any of this crap again.

That last one is the option I'm leaning toward.

But what disturbs me is how I just accidentally discovered the situation, and how close I came to having this problem continue to grow. It reminds me of that famous Donald Rumsfeld press conference about Iraq, mocked by liberals, when he talked about "known  unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." This is a perfect illustration of that principle.

There are several things I don't know. How the premiums stopped being paid. How my parents never noticed. How AIG somehow tracked me down, and how long they might have been sending me notices that I threw away unopened because I thought they were junk mail.

The difference between now and say, Saturday, though, is that Saturday I didn't know any of these things were issues. Now those are things I am aware that I don't know, while before, I didn't know an entire category of things I didn't know.

Now I wonder how many more of these kinds of things are out there, secret bombs from my past that I have no idea exist until they suddenly explode into my life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Long, Dark Night of Eddie Mendoza

So I mentioned over a year ago that I was playing a "new" character in our current tabletop game, a journalist named Eddie Mendoza. And I'm having a tremendous blast playing him, although it apparently doesn't look that way from the perspective of some of the other players in the game. Which sounds like something interesting to explore in a post.

As I mentioned in that previous post, Eddie started out as a provisional character. I wasn't sure if I was really ready to commit to another long-term game, but the premise sounded intriguing, so I came up with the concept for Eddie. The game master Sargon was dubious about Eddie, because everyone else was playing high-powered magic-using characters of one stripe or another, while Eddie was a mundane human journalist.

But with a strategically discovered magic pistol and a set of experimental new rules I was encouraged to break abuse use to my advantage, Eddie is able to hold his own in combat, and his nose for news has proven the launching point for many adventures. So I'm really happy with how Eddie has developed.

But here's the thing: Eddie's not happy. In fact, I don't think Eddie's capable of being happy, at least not yet. Eddie doesn't trust happiness, because happiness is what you feel before the rug is yanked out from under you. Eddie has spent years feeling guilty for something that happened over a decade earlier, although not in a mopey emo way. In a very-careful-to-guard-his-feelings-and-not-get-close-to-other-people way. And even though recent events in the game have shown him that the events he feels guilty about were more complicated than he thought, so that some of his guilt is misplaced, it's not something he can just give up.

The worst kind of character you can play in a tabletop RPG (and yet one that you encounter so often) is the Loner, because by nature, the game is about teamwork, and a Loner doesn't work well on a team. Eddie is a loner who doesn't necessarily want to be a loner, but learning how to change is not always easy.

I've been keeping a journal in Eddie's voice that the other players have access to on a cloud drive. Part of it is to say, "This is what happened." But Naamah, another player in the game, also keeps a similar in-character journal that is better at detailing events (I totally copied/stole her idea-not even going to lie).

But there was another reason. Because Naamah's journal tells events from her character's point-of-view, events are often characterized in a certain way that lines up with her character's attitudes. Eddie perceives things in a different way, and I wanted to represent that point-of-view. Also because Eddie's actions were often baffling to the game master and other players and I wanted to give a little insight into his thought process.

Sometimes even that isn't enough, because I think we sometimes approach gaming from completely different perspectives. It's like the difference between literary genres. Superhero and romance stories are largely about wish fulfillment. Horror stories are about confronting and working through fears and anxieties. I think the other players approached this game more as a superhero/romance, while I've approached it more like horror.

One of the players is an anime fan/devoted reader whose character is a magical girl fairy princess who is also a librarian. One of the players facing job anxiety has a character who is super-rich with a magical house that can travel anywhere at a moment's notice and also provides unlimited food and clothing. Literally any material possession she wants is available with a snap of the fingers. One of the players with RL family issues has a character with a close, loving, happy family.

And although some of the characters have tragedy in their pasts, none of them were at fault (or feel as if they were at fault) in any of them. Their characters are generally happy with themselves, happy with the way their lives were going before the game started, and not looking to change in any fundamental way. And they have had no problems falling into friendships (and beds) with each other.

Eddie was and is different. Eddie is not some wish-fulfillment fantasy. Eddie is much more a horror story character, a guy who may appear smart and cool and brave on the outside, but who is broken inside, and whose struggles mirror some of my own issues.

Eddie is more me than probably any other character I've played in my life. He's got my old job (journalist). He's got a lot of my attitudes. He's got a secret that he has never confessed to anyone in his life, and I have the exact same secret, something that absolutely no one knows about me, not family, not friends (and it's not evil or shameful, just sort of lame and embarrassing).

He has few friends, and what friends he has, he feels like an outsider among. He keeps his distance and has unrequited crushes (there was this one preacher's daughter; everybody knew how I felt, but I never copped to it, so we never actually dated). He tries to keep his head up, but he feels the guilt of a lifetime of bad choices that seemed right at the time. He even has my name, the name my parents originally meant for me to have before life laughed at their plans.

So Eddie is maybe a way for me to work though some of my own anxieties. He's also sort of opposite to everyone else in the game. But I think it works well for the game dynamic. A little sour to go with the sweet. That little hint of salt in the chocolate-covered pretzels.

It doesn't hurt that he is also an absolute terror with a pistol. And he is slowly trying to change his ways. Sometimes he has to do some logical contortions to find an excuse to change, but he is changing.

He's not happy, and he may never be truly happy, but I'm having a great time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vacationing in Place

So I had some vacation time planned last week, and I was really looking forward to the time off, although I didn't have any particular plans. I had thought about going out of town, but those plans fell through. And then I decided to just vacation in place.

I use the term "vacationing in place" rather than the trendier "staycation" because to me, staycation implies what I have usually done on my weeks off in recent years, due to a lack of money and motivation: stay at home and do all the things I normally do in my daily life--surf the internet, play games, cook at home--only without the going-to-work part. If I do happen to go out of town, it's to see my parents whose homes are as familiar to me as my own.

In other words, I don't have any new experiences or do any of those touristy things you do on a vacation. But I realized that there's a lot in Tulsa I haven't done. I never really experienced Tulsa as a tourist, because when I moved here, a combination of poverty, extremely demanding work schedule and a new fiancee kept me pretty much just working and sleeping and having sex much of the time. And by the time I got out of that pattern, I was married and affecting the bored, cynical pose of the native towards all those "tourists." Plus I'm from Oklahoma City, so it wasn't as if I thought Tulsa really had anything to show me.

But for this vacation, with some money in my pocket, I decided to treat it like an actual vacation. Don't spend all my time in the house. Go to places I've never been. Eat out as much as possible, and preferably at local places. See some touristy things. Go to some special events.

The first couple of days off, since they were my normal days off, I spent like any normal Monday and Tuesday. But on Wednesday, I started to ramp up. I ate out at the Rusty Crane downtown, where I'd never been before. I had the Sloppy John, which you would expect to be like a Sloppy Joe, except it wasn't. It was more like dry taco meat with some barbecue sauce on top. It was tasty, but not the flavor explosion I was expecting. Very friendly service, though.

Wednesday evening, I went to eat with someone (a rare experience in itself) at Gogi Gui, a Korean fusion place here in town. I had the donkatsu, which I haven't tried since one drunken expedition to a pub in Seoul in 1995(?) which culminated in me eating bugs, so my memories of the donkatsu were vague at best. Afterward, I went to the Saturn Room, a tiki lounge downtown (another place I'd never been) and tried one of their house specialty drinks, followed by karaoke at Woody's.

Thursday, I continued to press forward with the concept. Lunch was at the Genghis Grill on Cherry Street, which is a chain, but I'd never been there, so I tried it. Tasty food, but the organization, traffic flow, and service were all pretty bad, especially during the lunch rush. That afternoon, I decided to do something I've never really enjoyed, but suddenly found myself in the mood to try. I went to a bar and drank on the patio. I went to Classic Cigars downtown, sat out on the patio with a cigar and a beer and read Dracula, a book I had attempted to read as a child, but never finished (I did end up finishing it over the vacation). Both the cigar and beer were brands I'd never tried, recommended by the staff. I don't remember the cigar, but the beer was 5 a.m. Saint, a red ale. I really enjoyed myself, although it looks like I was still carrying some tension from work.

Still, to quote Castle, "I really am ruggedly handsome, aren't I?"

Afterward, I ate at the Rock 'N Rib Festival in downtown Tulsa. Rib Crib sponsored the event and were offering some special custom menu items just for the festival. I had a sampler of their htree types of smoked meat street tacos, which were all good, and also tried a sandwich from one of the barbecue contenders. Unfortunately, I tried economizing, so instead of having some authentic ribs, I had a sandwich which turned out to be a really expensive McRib. Still, a pretty good day, all in all.

Friday, I was not sure what to do to fill the day. I had events planned for the weekend that I didn't want to step on, so I started out by going to breakfast at McDonalds. Nothing says vacation like eating an oversalted biscuit with an undersalted egg on top, and I mean that sincerely. I pretty much only eat McDonalds breakfast (or any breakfast) on vacation, so that is exactly what it felt like.

Not sure what to do for lunch, I hunted around online and discovered that the Greek Festival was also happening that weekend (turns out there were at least four festivals happening that weekend - everybody trying to capitalize on the end of summer).So I headed just south of downtown to have some gyros and spanakopita and various other Greek things, including a glass of wine and a sour-cherry Greek soft drink. I hadn't been to the Greek festival in probably ten years, so this was a welcome return. I even enjoyed the bouzouki players.

Afterward, I drove around, thinking I might visit a park, but instead went back to Cherry Street, where I did some window shopping and had a chai in the Coffee House on Cherry Street (also new to me). I finished off Dracula and thought about doing some writing on my laptop, but there were at least ten other people on their laptops there, and they were ALL Macbooks, so I kept my Windows laptop safely in its bag to avoid Apple bullies.

Supper that night, after researching several possibilities that fell through, was at Fat Guy's Burgers downtown, where I go fairly often, but I had never tried their fries. Fat Guy's has a large number of custom dipping sauces that I have been wanting to try, so I got an order of fries with malt vinegar aioli. Not as tasty as I'd hoped, but a new experience nonetheless. I kind of wanted to go try another bar at that point, but since I had to get up early the next morning, I decided to go home and make it an early night.

Why did I have to get up early? Because a couple of weeks before my vacation, I found out that there would be a race that Saturday morning, the Quarter-Marathon sponsored by Fleet Feet Sports (quarter-marathon is a little over 10.5k). So at 7:30 in the morning, I headed downtown to run in the race. I didn't have my best time ever, maybe because I had spent the last few days drinking and eating fries with malt vinegar aioli, but the weather was perfect for running, overcast and cool,and I did okay.

Of course, although I tried to smile in this immediate post-race shot, I was feeling more like this.

Afterward, I stuck around and ate the free food provided (and by "free," I mean "covered by the race admission fee"). Went home and cleaned up and then took my daughter to Eufaula to see my dad, where we ate at a Mexican restaurant I had never tried (Los Arcos, apparently a regional chain, but the food was mediocre at best).

Sunday, we slept late, lunched at Braums, then came back home, where I tried another new thing. I have lived in my current house for over seven years, a couple of miles from downtown which I have just started trying to explore, and only a mile or so from the Gilcrease Museum,where I had never been. And it just so happens that they have free admission on one Sunday a month, which just happened to fall on my vacation week. Serendipity!

So I toured the museum and felt so relaxed and at peace that I even decided to explore the park out back.

I think I look a lot more relaxed in that last pic than in the previous ones. I also decided that my vacation needed a souvenir, so I bought some overpriced Mexican chocolate from the museum gift shop.

And then I faced an agonizing couple of hours trying to decide where to have dinner for the last hoorah of the vacation in place. I juggled several ideas, but eventually settled on another Cherry Street restaurant called Smoke, which sounds like a barbecue place, but is actually a steak house with a cigar lounge. On Sunday nights, they have a special price on a 12 oz. New York Strip which was quite nice. I paired it with an ale from an Oklahoma brewery that I had never tried before. A very enjoyable evening, even though I ended up passing on the cigar lounge. Afterward, I spent way too much of my remaining cash at a bar.

And now, even though I technically haven't gone back to work yet, the vacation part of the vacation-in-place is over. I think it was a great success. I didn't get away from Tulsa, except for a brief jaunt to Dad's, but that meant I was able to spend money I would have used on gas and lodging to eat at great places and have fun experiences. But I am left with two conflicting thoughts.

One is that there is still a lot of Tulsa that I haven't experienced, so I can use this concept again and again on several future vacations. The other is that, since I'm here, I don't need to wait until my vacation to do these things. But the thing about doing it as a vacation is that I could use the money budgeted for travel to go places I normally can't afford, and because my mind was in vacation mode, I allowed myself to spend the money that I otherwise wouldn't have.

It was a good week. I can't wait for December.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The Beast With Eight Shoes (And Counting)

Holy crap, what a mess.

You know the old saying about waiting for the other shoe to drop? Right now, I'm wondering just how many shoes this beast has. But let me start at basically the beginning.

Several years ago, when my ex and I separated, I bought this little old house. I thought at the time it had this retro charm to it. Seven years later, its quirks are no longer lovable, and I seriously want to raze it to the ground and build a brand-new house in its place.

One of those quirks was the bathroom plumbing. In the bathroom was an antique cast-iron clawfoot tub, which was cool. But when it was installed, it had only a tub filler faucet, no shower. Some time later, the previous owners decided to rig a shower using flexible tubing and a separate faucet fixture that looks like something you'd hook a garden hose to..

Another flexible tube hung from a chain attached to the ceiling, with a piece of pink string tied around the base of the shower head to keep it from weaving around like a Water Wiggle (from Wham-O).

I didn't especially love the setup, but new tub/shower fixtures were expensive, so I made do. But over the years, the faucet developed first a little drip, and lately, a full trickle that could not be shut off no matter how tightly you turned off the faucets. And because that trickle included hot water, the bathroom was permanently steamy.

Now, this is normally a pretty easy home repair, a simple matter of replacing the washers in the faucet handles. But I decided, since I'm now working full-time and had some available cash, to go ahead and change out that old jerry-rigged system for some new fixtures.

Shoe the First: local stores do not carry clawfoot tub fixtures in inventory. So I had to special order on-line and have it delivered, which caused a brief delay. By this time, I could feel the heightened humidity every time I headed back toward the bathroom, and any paper goods in adjoining rooms felt decidedly damp.

But although Home Depot's website said something on the order of 10 days for delivery, I think I got in closer to seven. Still not ideal, but at least now I could get on to the repair.

Drop Shoe the Second: torrential rains. When I went out to the water meter can to shut off the water, the hole was flooded. Feeling around in muddy, murky water, I could not feel anything like a shut-off valve.

So I went to the internet to research. I found that most houses should have a separate shut-off valve in the house somewhere, either in the house proper, or in the crawlspace, or on the pipes outside where the water comes into the house. Well, there was not a master shut-off in the house, and the crawl-space, besides being muddy and frightening (imagine the support pillars for the house having the same jerry-rigged look as the plumbing above), was very confusing. Nothing clearly stood out as a master shut-off, and the main cluster of pipes looked mostly inaccessible. I did find a pipe going into the house with a proper shut-off valve. Turning that off shut off my gas.

One relit water heater pilot later, I still had no idea where my shut-off valve was. I decided to wait until the water had receded in the water meter can so I could find that shut-off valve.

Which is probably the reason why it rained every day for something like two solid weeks.

Eventually, after a few dry days, the water surrounding the meter finally soaked back into the ground and I could clearly see...

Shoe the Third: no shut-off valve. Seriously, nothing there. Look.

At this point, I seriously considered calling a plumber to do the installation, but I had spent most of my available cash on the fixtures themselves, which were just sitting in pieces around the house. So I decided to call the utility company and ask them. The customer service rep insisted the shut-off valve was with the meter, but suggested that she could turn in an emergency shut-off request to the city. I hesitated, but declined, since I would then have to have someone come back out to turn it back on, and if there was a leak somewhere, I would have to call them back out to shut it off again.

So I decided to take some time to look for other options. But apparently, the customer service rep I talked to misunderstood what I said, because a couple of hours later, my water was off. I ran out to look at the water meter to see if I could tell what had been done to shut it off, but there was no sign.

But not wanting to waste the opportunity, I went ahead and did the installation of the new fixture. It took a few hours longer than it should have, because...

Shoe the Fourth: the old faucet had been in place for decades. The nuts securing it to the tub had been painted over at least once, space was tight, and one of the corners on one of the old nuts had been worn away pretty thoroughly, so getting the nuts free was a bitch. Once I finally had the nuts free, I found out the faucet itself was secured with putty, so I had to spend another twenty minutes to a half-hour trying to work it free. The heat and humidity built up over previous weeks meant I could only work in there for about twenty minutes at a time before I had to step out and cool off. I also replaced the float-and-flapper system in the toilet, which otherwise runs constantly in the winter unless you reach your hand in the tank and hold down the flapper, which as you might imagine is a pretty cold proposition.

Finally, though, I got the job done.

Or so I thought. By the time I finished, it was almost 9 p.m. and I had to leave for work. Because of my odd sleep-and-work schedule, I was not able to call the city for a couple of days to get the water turned on. Which is when I heard the crashing sounds of...

Shoe the Fifth: getting the water back on. Remember, I still had not found the shut-off switch outside, so I still had no way to turn the water back on. I called the city to come out, but by the next day, he had not shown up. Still no water.

So I called, only to be told he had turned the water on, found it to be running, shut it off immediately, and left. Because of bad phone reception in my house and poor communication skills on the part of the rep, I could not process what she was telling me, so I asked for the guy to come back.

Another day later, and when I called back, they informed me that once again, he had come, turned it on, shut it off, and left. This person was able to explain the issue more clearly: if the water meter shows water flowing when they turn it back on, they have no way of knowing whether that is something normal (like the toilets refilling after being flushed during three days without water) or a leak. So they immediately turn the water off and leave.

I think it stretched to five calls with the city and me planting a folding chair out by the street to wait for the guy to show up. Finally the truck pulls up so I can watch the guy shut off the water. And there's the shut-off.

Remember the picture I showed you above? The shut-off valve is visible in that picture. Here:

Hidden there in the grass and dirt is a barely-visible oblong almost the same color as the surrounding dirt that looks like just another piece of debris. Once I cleared away the dirt and grass roots, it looked more like the kind of shut-off valve I was looking for.

And it was a good thing he showed me where it was, because there actually was a pretty bad leak. I had tried to reuse some old washers from the old fixtures, which didn't work well. I had to leave the water shut off and run to a couple of hardware stores to find new washers that would work, and then turn the water back on myself.

And finally, it was done. And none too soon, because all the extra humidity from the hot water had huge patches of black mold growing on my walls which I spent a few hours scrubbing away, not just in the bathroom, but in the adjoining room. All was good with the world again.

Until there came the thundering sound of Shoe the Sixth, a week or so later: apparently, all the hot water that had been running had kept the hot water heater running more than usual, driving my gas bill up to twice what it normally is in the summer. This made the meter reader suspect a gas leak, and he shut off my gas.

Not a problem. Unlike my long sojourn in the wilds of underemployment, my bills were now current and in good standing, so I just called to have it turned back on.

Oh, wait, is that the gentle trip-trapping of a SEVENTH SHOE? Why yes, I think it is. Remember all the way up at the top of this post, when I talked about my old house's no-longer-lovable quirks. Another one of those quirks was a slap-dash venting pipe coming out the top of my old water heater. It was apparently venting carbon monoxide into the house. Now, the house is not actually sealed up well enough for deadly gases to build up, but rules is rules, so the water heater is shut down with an official tag on it until I get the vent replaced. But it shouldn't be a problem, the guy said. It should be, like, maybe an hour's work for a plumber.

Shoe the Eighth: I called out a plumbing service to take a look and quote me a price. And as it happens, they need to not only replace the vent pipe leading to the hole in the wall inside, they need to add some kind of gimcrack outside. But I have allowed the foliage to grow out of control on that side of the house. There's only a couple of feet of clearance between the house and the fence on that side, which means it is completely impassable.

So the quote for the "easy one-hour job," including a little extra for working in an inaccessible location: north of $700 bucks, otherwise known as the "there's no way in hell I want to actually do this job, so I'm quoting you a price so high that there's no way you'll agree to pay it."

So that's where I am right now: living in what is turning into the third week without hot water while I try to track down the parts to do the job myself (honestly, other than the outside bit, it doesn't look that hard). But, like clawfoot tub fixtures, there is a part that I'm having trouble finding. Home Depot carries everything I need except for the part that actually attaches to the water heater, which looks like it is sold with the water heater itself.

I was going to go today to regular hardware stores to look for it, but I overslept. Yes, I know. My own procrastination and odd sleep schedules are turning every problem much bigger than it needs to be. But it's a little late to get me to change now.