Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Some thoughts about Home Owners Associations

Pat and I have been toying with the idea of buying a house of some sort in Arizona. Real estate prices in that state have plummeted, so there are a lot of good deals out there. The idea is that we would get a place close to ASU that Gerald could live in and that we could stay in when we go to visit him. By the time he graduates, property values will probably not have risen to the extreme levels they were at before the real-estate crash, but the house would likely have gained some value. At that point, we might sell at a profit, keep the place as a rental, or move into it ourselves – at least during the colder parts of the year. For summer, we’d retreat to Five O’Clock Somewhere up in the mountains.

Some of the properties we have looked at have been in neighborhoods where there is a Home Owners Association, or HOA. That can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing, depending on the nature of the HOA in question. A good HOA will preserve or even enhance the value of the properties in the neighborhood, and it will provide a good return on residents’ dues in terms of services provided. A bad HOA can be a nightmare to deal with.

Among the HOAs associated with homes in Arizona, $100 a month seems to be about typical for dues. For that money, the HOA provides facilities and services, such as community swimming pools, tennis courts, open space, golf courses, clubhouses, and/or security. Some HOAs have lower dues, about $40 a month, and presumably the amenities provided are fewer as well.

And then there are the really bare-bones HOAs. We haven’t seen any of those in Arizona, but I was once on the board of an HOA that had one, and only one, function: to maintain and improve 7½ miles of private road leading into the neighborhood. No, I’m not on the board anymore, so I didn’t have anything to do with the current board’s disastrous decision to cut corners on costs by using cheaper gravel that turned out to be contaminated by millions of small nails, screws, and bits of wire. But back then, we were justifiably proud of our road. We heard many people call it “the best private road in Rio Arriba County,” and members of other HOA boards came to observe how we operated and how we managed to maintain the road with “only” $150 a year dues. (Dues have since been raised to $200 a year, but the board still manages to do a lot with very little – which lately has included paying for a lot of members’ tire repairs.)

Of course, services are only one side of the HOA issue. Many HOAs do more than provide services; they also have a say in what residents can or can’t do with their homes. This is seen primarily as a way to preserve property values; a neighbor’s activity will not negatively impact a place and reduce its desirability. These rules may be fairly loose, or they may be strict, and they typically apply to what can be stored in a house or yard, what activities can or can’t be done, what sort of landscaping is permitted, and changes to the house or other structures. The idea is that a person can buy a house in the neighborhood and not have to worry that the neighbors will disassemble junk cars in the front yard or paint their house vomit-green.

On the other hand, some HOAs rule with an iron fist. My brother Jer, of Muddled Ramblings, once lived in a neighborhood with a very strict and unreasonable HOA. He and his wife wanted to remodel the kitchen, but even though that remodeling wouldn’t impact the exterior of the house, it required approval of the HOA board. Another time, they wanted to replace a balky sliding glass door with an attractive French door at the back of the house. The board refused.

Jer’s neighbor had an even crazier run-in with the HOA. The neighborhood is on the edge of a canyon that is kept as a wilderness preserve in Southern California, where wildfires frequently sweep through in vast waves of destruction. The fire marshal had made an inspection of all local neighborhoods as part of an emergency-preparedness “triage” plan, and had declared that, in the event of a wildfire, this neighborhood was not savable, and that firefighting resources would be better focused elsewhere.

So the neighbor bought and installed a fire hose in front of his house. The HOA board went ballistic, ordering him to remove the eyesore immediately. He begged and pleaded and groveled, and eventually the board allowed him to keep the fire hose, under two conditions: that he keep it locked up at all times and that he not train anybody in how to use it.

The next fire season in Southern California was one of the worst on record. At one point, it seemed like all of San Diego County was on fire. Jer’s neighborhood was surrounded on three sides by wildfires. The neighbor broke out the fire hose and spent the next two days spraying water on all of the houses within reach. When the flames subsided, smoldering wreckage was all around, but Jer’s neighborhood survived. I never heard, though, whether the HOA board ate crow.

Meanwhile, back in Arizona, some HOAs seem to have more reasonable rules than others. It’s very typical to see rules on what color residents can paint their houses, restricting or forbidding parking of boats or RVs, or regulating landscaping.

There is one neighborhood in particular, where I would not want to live. The HOA has completely unreasonable restrictions, for example, on what colors house trim may be painted. If I want to paint my front door blue (a tradition in Northern New Mexico for good luck), I fail to see how that negatively impacts my neighbor’s property value, but blue is not on the list of permitted colors. That rule, however, is the least of the beefs with this particular HOA. The landscaping rules require that residents pretend they are not living in a desert. At least a certain percentage of the lot must be landscaped with water-hogging green grass (artificial turf is not allowed), and desert vegetation is forbidden, especially cacti. Saguaros are expressly prohibited.

That’s right, no saguaros allowed. In a neighborhood in Arizona. The saguaro blossom is the state flower. The majestic cactus itself is such an iconic symbol of the state that the very thought of Arizona brings to mind images of it, and it’s featured on state license plate. It amounts to heresy to prohibit an Arizona resident from having one as part of the landscape. If people don’t want to live where there are saguaros, they darn well shouldn’t live in Arizona, except perhaps in the northern part of the state that doesn’t have them.

On the other hand, there’s another neighborhood whose HOA’s rules are much more to my liking. Very few things are totally forbidden, although many do have to get approval of a special Architectural Compliance Committee appointed by the HOA board. This committee is very busy; it meets for two hours every other week. Depending on how reasonable members of the committee are, I might be able to live with it. For example, the HOA does have a list of approved colors that one can paint one’s house trim, but if a homeowner wishes to use another color, he or she can get permission from the committee. If I want to paint my front door blue, I can bring in a paint chip of the shade I want to use and explain how it will not detract from the appearance of the neighborhood, as well as the cultural background behind the color – this HOA seems to be very big on cultural heritage.

Other things that are forbidden outright by some HOAs are allowed in this neighborhood, again, with the approval of the Architectural Compliance Committee. Boats and RVs, clotheslines, auto maintenance, and more, are generally acceptable if they are not within view of adjacent properties or public areas, and if the means of shielding said view (shed, fence, or whatever) is approved by the committee. If the committee is reasonable about sheds, fences, and the like, I can live with that.

But the big thing that I really like about this HOA is its landscaping rules. This HOA understands the desert and respects it. Residents are encouraged to landscape with desert vegetation, especially species native to the Sonoran Desert, although other water-thrifty plants are allowed. The HOA has an extensive, detailed list, broken down by categories, of approved plants that a homeowner can plant. And yes, the saguaro tops the list in the “cactus” category. The HOA also has an extremely short list of forbidden plants that guzzle water, crank out vast quantities of pollen, or otherwise create a nuisance (palm trees over a certain height, pines, oleanders, junipers, and Bermuda grass). Any plant that is not on the approved list but not on that short list can be planted if – you guessed it – the Architectural Compliance Committee approves.

There is, however, one restriction on landscaping that I can’t quite figure out. Residents are not to have “unnecessarily unattractive shrubbery.” What the heck is that? I guess I can define “necessarily unattractive” shrubbery as, say, scrawny new plants that need time to fill out, or “unnecessarily attractive” plants as those that don’t have to be pretty but happen to be, while “necessarily attractive” shrubbery would be plants that can’t help being beautiful. But “unnecessarily unattractive”? My best guess would be something like obscene topiaries, but I’m not so sure. I guess I would have to ask the Architectural Compliance Committee.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

You are here

Well, actually YOU aren't here, but I am ...

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Spam tombstones

When headlines collide, 21st century style …

Way back, eons ago, when I was taking journalism classes in college, one of the courses I took was in page design. In that class, I learned about the dread “tombstone,” when two adjacent headlines on the page seem to merge into each other, conveying an unintended, often humorous and/or macabre meaning. With modern page-layout software, tombstones seldom happen anymore, since page designers have considerable flexibility and can make sure that two headlines are offset enough not to appear connected. But in the old days, that was not always the case. The headlines were written by copy-editors, who often knew only what typeface and size the page designer had specified, not where on the page the particular headline would appear. And if the newspaper was large enough to have more than one copy-editor, two adjacent stories could easily have headlines written by two different people.

Nowadays, tombstones don’t happen so often in a newspaper. Most often, it’s not two adjacent news stories, but the juxtaposition of a news story with an advertisement, since the news and advertising are produced in two different departments with little, if any, coordination between them. The most memorable such tombstone that I can recall came in late 2008. On the day following the election of Barack Obama, the Albuquerque Journal had published a front page making note of the historical nature of the event. A few days later, the Journal ran a reproduction of that front page, on page A4, in full, glorious color. On that same day, Macy’s ran a full-page, full-color ad launching its Christmas sales. Because of the way newspaper printing presses are set up, only some pages in a section can have full color, and the result was that the Macy’s ad was on page A5, directly facing the front page reproduction. Thus, page A4 had the headline “Obama Wins!” while page A5 had the headline “Yes, Virginia, there Is a Santa Claus!”

All of this is a roundabout way of announcing the newest addition to the links over in the sidebar on the left, naked in public and other things I didn’t know I’d be when I grew up. This is a blog by Harlean Carpenter, the Poetic Pinup, who is a fiction, but who is still somewhat associated with my brother Jer, of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas.

Harlean often comments about the vagaries of the English language, as well as about how people misuse it. I am afraid I will have to agree to disagree with her on punctuation associated with closing quote marks (she insists on being logical, while I must stick with the rules of American Standard Written English, even if said rules are illogical, if for no other reason than that I have to make sure my students produce writing that conforms with the standard). But most of what she says, I do agree with, and her observations go beyond mere grammar. I found myself especially amused (translated into tweetspeak, that means ROTFL) with her recent post on Why I Love Spam. No, she doesn’t enjoy junk emails any more than anybody else does. But she does look in her spambox on a regular basis. Maybe she originally did it to make sure that her email filter hadn’t accidentally sent some non-spam there, but now, she likes to look for the juxtapositions in which the subject lines of two adjacent spams accidentally make a humorous phrase. She calls these juxtapositions “chunks,” but really, they’re the same thing as the old tombstones. Here are some examples that she cites:

“Want those stretch marks to vanish?
Conquer the language barrier”

“Improve Your Sex Life!
Nursing Assistant Courses Online”

“Your kidney failure may
Earn generous revenue online”

“men have experienced bigger
Sprouts in as little as 5 days”

“Begin a rewarding career with
Secrets of scoring with women”

“When Wall Street crashes
We can keep your male instrument”

“Asbestos exposure is shown to
Enlarge your penis in a safe way”

“Express your feelings in an elegant way
Quit talking and start shagging”

So what’s in your spambox?

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Parent or short order cook?

Which do you find more boring … this …

Or this?

Time and time again, I have heard parents complaining about how their kids are so picky about food – that they WILL NOT eat this or that or the other, or that they will only eat a select few foods that they trust and are not willing to experiment with anything beyond their range of familiarity. So, the parents moan, when the family goes out to eat, they have to go only to places that will serve what their kids like, and when the family is eating at home, the mom becomes a short-order cook, preparing one thing for one kid, another thing for another kid, separate from what the family as a whole is eating.

Pat and I never allowed Gerald to get picky – if he didn’t want to eat what we were eating, he didn’t eat. Funny thing is, he never really went through a picky stage, ever, and he has since taken not only to eating but also to cooking all sorts of intriguing foods. The gifted program at his elementary school ran a mini-restaurant that prepared a gourmet lunch every Wednesday as an alternative to the school cafeteria. He has also always enjoyed the cooking shows on television and been excited about the cooking techniques he has observed on them – at one point, he even considered being a chef as a career choice. Recently, he has become an expert on Vietnamese cuisine; one of his close friends is Vietnamese, and he’s now dating that friend’s kid sister.

Some years ago, my cousin, his wife and their two boys (then ages 9 and 5) came to visit us at Five O’Clock Somewhere. I tried to get the boys interested in helping in the kitchen – I was preparing chicken Kiev, (baked, not fried) so there were a lot of fun things to do such as pounding the chicken breasts with a mallet and using a rolling pin to smash crackers into crumbs. But they thought that whole idea was boring, especially the older one, opting instead to go to the living room and switch the television from the news that I was listening to, to an episode of Spongebob Squarepants that they had seen so often that they could recite all of the dialog in unison with the characters on the screen. Gerald and I ended up doing most of the work.

Then when we sat down to eat, the boys didn’t want to eat what was served, so their mother went into the kitchen to fix what they wanted – grilled cheese for one, a hot dog for the other. I was astonished that she caved in to their demands and that she would allow them to be so blatantly impolite to their hosts – as well as being somewhat impolite herself by presuming to go to the kitchen without checking in with me first (although that’s a gray area since I welcome people coming into my kitchen to help, and I enjoy what goes on when people who love each other are all cooking together. I have fond memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases when my mom, my aunt, Gerald, and I have all been cooking in harmony.)

Now, maybe my cousin’s wife decided that because we were family, she could go to the kitchen to do the short-order cook thing, and maybe in a more formal situation she would not allow her kids to snub the food that was served or presume to take over the kitchen herself. But I’m not so sure.

But then, I can’t really make my cousin and his wife (now ex, but still close to the family) out to be ultra-lenient, at least in today’s world. It seems that the vast majority of parents cater to their kids’ whims. At least daily, I encounter a parent who expresses frustration about her (or his) kid’s pickiness and laments all the time and trouble she has to go through to keep the kid satisfied. Usually it’s in an impersonal situation, such as a supermarket check-out line, where I can’t reasonably berate the parent for being so much of a wimp that she lets her kids walk all over her.

There was a television commercial that used to run often, featuring a mother and super-cute preschool-age daughter in a supermarket. The girl objected to everything the mother put into the shopping cart: “I don’t like chicken,” “I don’t like broccoli,” and so forth. In the end, the girl’s mother buys a sweet, vitamin-enriched milkshake-type product to make up for the nutrition the girl would miss by refusing to eat broccoli or chicken or anything else she doesn’t like. To me, that’s the ultimate cop-out. It provides a way for parents to say that they are making sure their kids’ nutritional needs are being met without having to make their kids angry with them, and it puts the kids in control of the family’s food-buying decisions.

Bullshit. Study after study has proved that the best way for the human body to absorb nutrients is to eat foods containing those nutrients, not to take a supplement that contains extracts of those nutrients or synthetic versions of them. Essentially, the nutritional milkshakes are simply a vitamin pill in liquid form. Kids may love them because of the flavor, and parents may love them because it keeps them from having to be the bad guy enforcing consumption of broccoli. Sorry, bad idea. Kids need to eat healthful food. It’s not just about the vitamins and minerals – which seems to be where parental concerns seem to reside. It’s about the overall healthfulness of the diet. A really caring parent will make sure his kid consumes healthful foods, no matter how much she protests.

Really, it’s simple. So long as the kid doesn’t have some underlying medical issue, it’s fine to let him refuse to eat what’s served. Eventually, he’s going to get hungry enough that he WILL eat it. Yeah, some highly principled individuals (such as Mahatma Ghandi) will go on hunger strike and risk death to make their point. But that sort of idealism is not what drives the average 9-year-old, so the kid’s determination will fade as the hunger increases. Refusing any food whatsoever may be child abuse, but offering only food that the child finds unpalatable is not.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chile vs. chili revisited

Coming back to a hot topic

A couple of years ago, I posted a lengthy explanation of the semantic distinctions of two words, Chile vs. chili. In particular, I focused on the New Mexico definitions (drawn from the Albuquerque Journal style guide), which differ from the definitions in the rest of the world. In most places, the word chili is used interchangeably, but in New Mexico, chile with an e at the end refers to the fruit of the capsicum plant, while chili refers to a stew made using chiles. I also posted a recipe.

Of course, there are discussions also about the composition of chili (the stew). Some people disagree about whether the meat in it should be beef or pork, or whether either is acceptable (I prefer coarse-ground pork, but I’ll use beef if that’s what’s available). And then beans are a huge area of contention. Some people say that chili should not have any beans, while others say chili must have beans, and among the bean proponents, there is disagreement about what sorts of beans are acceptable – pinto beans only, or other sorts, such as kidney beans, black beans, or navy beans. (I like kidney beans myself.)

And then there’s that other form of chili found in Cincinnati, which doesn’t have so much chile in it (but does apparently include cinnamon and – surprise – chocolate?) and which is served over pasta and topped with grated cheese and chopped onions. I remember watching a Monday Night Football game during which John Madden gave Cincinnati chili a resounding endorsement. I’m going to have to try it someday.

One update on the recipe in the link above: Since I wrote that post, the Chimayo chile production plant has been bought by Bueno Foods, and the former Chimayo brand is now available as the Bueno Select product line.

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Judi Dench - "Send In the Clowns" from Hey, Mr. Producer!

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Used-book bookmark serendipity

Strange artifacts from other people’s lives

Pat and I seldom buy new books anymore. Partly it’s because we’re in a state of financial austerity, but even if we had plenty of money, we have found that used-book stores and thrift shops offer far better deals on reading material.

One side effect of buying used books is that sometimes there’s something extra in the book. Someone will read a book, or part of a book, and will use something as a bookmark that is subsequently forgotten, and so when the book goes to the charity donation bin or used-book store, the bookmark is left buried among the pages.

Sometimes the bookmark isn’t all that exciting. I will often find airline boarding passes as bookmarks in mass-market paperbacks, for example. The scenario behind that sort of bookmark is fairly obvious – so-and-so bought a copy of The Da Vinci Code to read on her flight from Albuquerque to Newark, she used the boarding pass as a bookmark, she read the book, and then when she was done (or gave up on it partway through), she decided she didn’t need to keep it.

Other bookmarks can be more interesting. A couple of years ago, one of my fellow participants in National Novel Writing Month was the proprietor of a used-book store. She had all sorts of tales to tell of what she had found within the pages of books that have come into her establishment. Her NaNo novel that year was based on one such intriguing item.

One interesting bookmark that I found was in a softcover copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, which I picked up at the Pagosa Springs Humane Society thrift shop. This was a newspaper clipping from a newspaper in the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, giving details about the death of a young man on one of the lesser islands in the island group. The headline was “Erromango Boy’s, a Mystery.” The article – actually more of a news brief – detailed how the body of an island native (who was called a “boy” even though he was 27 years old) had been found alongside a road, a victim of a hit-and-run car crash. The brief quoted the island constable as saying the victim was “more than dead.” In the margin of the clipping, someone had written “I thought dead was all you could be.”

Now, there are many questions that could arise about this, such as, how does a newspaper clipping from a Vanuatu newspaper end up in a book for sale in the Pagosa Springs Humane Society Thrift Shop? Who clipped the article? How did she come to be in Vanuatu? How can I meet this person, who is obviously interested in language and usage, and who also seems to have the ability to travel to obscure places around the globe?

My most recent intriguing bookmark also came in a book from the Pagosa Springs Humane Society. A very long time ago, I bought an omnibus edition of three of Cleveland Amory’s books: The Cat Who Came for Christmas, The Cat and the Curmudgeon, and The Best Cat Ever. For several years, that book has sat on my shelf, waiting for me to have time to read it. A week ago, finally, I did.

Tucked into the book, marking T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats,” was a bookmark consisting of a strip of postage stamps, laminated together. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be all that big of a deal. But these stamps were from the old Soviet Union, commemorating the 1980 Olympics, which the United States had boycotted, and which many other nations either boycotted or allowed athletes to decide whether to boycott, to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The images on the stamps are classic Soviet art – chiseled, idealized athletes, two female, two male, participating in track-and-field events: sprint, pole vault, high jump, hurdles. Even if these stamps were created in the 1980s, there is a serious 1930s feel to the images.

Since these stamps were about an event that Americans were supposed to pretend didn’t even exist, it’s a mystery how they ended up in a book of cat tales in a thrift shop in southwestern Colorado.

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