TuckerSelfPortrait Fish Have Dreams Too Girl With Cat Budda

A TALE OF TWO YEARS

Thriving in a post apocalyptic world
Tale of Two Cities

Who would have thought the words of a 19th century writer would so aptly describe 2020: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Tale of Two Cities” opened with these lines before digging deep into the themes of duality – revolution and resurrection – on economic, political and personal levels.

Our collective Annus Horribilis is behind us (good riddance, 2020!), but we’re not yet out of the woods. The pandemic will rage until it won’t. The politicians will pander unceasing. Self-aggrandizers won’t stop soapboxing on social platforms. The media will continue selling their souls to push their products. And we, the (little) people will still agonize over money, jobs and our lost hope.

My disillusionment over the state of affairs led me not to vote in the 2020 Presidential election, something I’ve never done since casting my very first ballot in 1976. The rallying cries of the left and the right turned me off, not on. No one man, or woman for that matter, is going to save my country, my son’s future or me. They say hope springs eternal, but in 2020 mine was buried deep beneath the tundra.

In 2020, my income was cut by 85% as customers closed their doors or went on hiatus. I’ve maxed out all my credit cards to pay bills. My credit rating went from excellent to bordering on poor. My 2008 Prius in need of a $3500 repair sits on the street and hasn’t been driven in over a year. Tucker spent high school at home for 10 months (& he's got failing grades to show for it).

The house we’ve been building since 2016 still stands under construction. Even our crew on the site are overwhelmed (though they seem to be the only ones working). I'm living in Houston with no car (Gary drives his to work for a company that never closed during the pandemic) and no job in a rented apartment where my "to do" list for the site seems to grow exponentially and the kitchen and living areas are overrun with towering big boxes containing toilets, sinks and bathtubs (who knew a pandemic would hit & we'd still be renting a year+ later?). The City of Houston still wants their $16,000 property tax money on our half-built home. And the IRS says I owe $6000 for Obama care last year. Bursting into tears and sobbing in the shower, at the grocery store or on a walk are regular occurrences for me.

Well, I’d say I’ve earned “the worst of times,” trophy as so many other people have the right to claim in 2020.

So, what about “the best of times” part?

Well, there's been some of that, too.

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SAD THEY ARE GONE

But happy they were here
Van Halen

It’s 7 AM, cold, windy and dark here at the construction site in Houston. I’m waiting for the HVAC inspector (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) to arrive at some undetermined time. I just got a call letting me know my ex (with full time job and a brand new car) has asked for a reduction in his child support and The Attorney General of Texas has granted his request. My business has decreased (along with my salary) by 90% since COVID took over in April. This recent financial revelation brings in a new chill.

Post HVAC inspection, we must take down the wooden staircase (for the third time), as it’s 1” too high to pass the long-awaited framing inspection. My ever-industrious welder agreed to a great price to make the new one of steel (which was our original desire). Even with the stellar deal, we can’t afford it since my business took a sharp nosedive. All the money we have left for building the house now goes to paying bills. But as Gary and I have been doing all along, we continue moving forward to fulfill our vision despite constant economic challenges – and by that I mean we AIN'T GOT NO MONEY!

Following our “Leap and the net will appear” philosophy in life, love and construction, we remain determined to build the house well and not compromise in its design. This manifesto has engendered incessant sleep deprivation, worry, fear and panic for nearly 4 years. But, THE UNIVERSE WANTS US TO FINISH THE HOUSE. How do I know? Because just when we need it the most, when we're financially down and out with only a partially built house to show for all the years of hard work and sacrifice, money arrived from completely out of the blue. For the first time in a long time, I believe we can really finish the house and move in. We've spit in the face of COVID-19, hurricanes, floods, job losses, a pandemic and an ex-husband that right now I’d love to leave stranded down by the river in a van.

But enough about me.

Unrelated to COVID-19, three people recently died: One I knew well, one I didn’t know at all and one everyone “knew” and was part of my youth. Death no longer seems a distant concept, the sword of Damoclese hanging over my head, especially living through a pandemic. Reality gives one pause. My options are to curl up in a corner, stay constantly pissed or determined to push through to the other side.

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BUILT FOR A PANDEMIC

Let's send panic packing
Giant Art Guys

Day 70 of house arrest.

With my 16-year-old son.

And cantankerous cat.

Gary is the link to the outside world for the most part. The company he works for (they sell electricity) finagled an “essential” business status. Although their website states, “We are dedicated to our customers and we wish you and your families continued safety and good health," those good intentions don’t extend to Gary who is perfectly capable of doing his Developer job uninterrupted from home and more importantly guarded against COVID-19 when not surrounded by several hundred people in close quarters. Seems the millionaire owner only trusts you to do your job when he can see you at your desk. Despite a pandemic.

I do envy and appreciate his good fortune in still having a job. It means we can pay our mortgage and an even costlier and more important debt (at least to his ex-wife), her exorbitant blood money, I mean adult support, I mean alimony (6 years down, 3 left to go). Note to any ex-husbands out there to be: Don’t get divorced in Colorado.

She may get a generous steady stream of cash to supplement her part-time job, but I got the guy who thinks I'm worth that quarter of a million dollars.

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DIG DEEP THE FENCE POSTS. DIG DEEP THE STEEL PILLARS. DIG DEEP WITHIN MYSELF.

Are We Even Going to Get There?
MM with Crew

Gary and I have run out of money for building the house.

Our bank loan carried us through the framing and roofing of our two-story corner house - all 4900 square feet of it (1873 of that square footage makes up the carport, tool shed, covered walkway and upstairs covered balcony).

We've come this far because we've done almost all the framing ourselves. Why? We didn't want to owe the bank a lot of money. And we thought, "How hard could it be?" (Were we really that naive?) The bank wouldn't provide a construction loan unless we used one of their approved builders. We didn't want to do that, so we took a smaller remodeling loan. This forced hands-on approach enabled us to frame our house for about $50 a square foot. Builders quoted us over $200 a square foot to use them.

The demolished 1600 square foot octogenarian house I'd been living in for 15 years is a distant, fond memory.

Through two long brutal summers and shorter frigid winter months, we've spent every weekend out on the site measuring, cutting, leveling and nailing in place frames, walls, windows and doors. Afterwards it's my job to clean the site, picking up nails and wood and sweeping debris off the concrete floors that we'll eventually polish. It's my 15-year-old son's job to cut the lawn (with a weed eater) and pick up the trash. And it's Gary's job to figure out how the hell to accomplish the next building task.

I have been asking, “Are we there yet?” Now, I'm staying awake at night fretting, "Are we even going to get there?"

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A STUDY IN BUILDING YOUR OWN HOUSE

Are We There Yet?
Roof Trusses

Watching the sunrise out on my tiny balcony, I’m contemplating my next move. Literally, my next move. Two years ago today we moved into what I thought would be for a short time – a 3rd floor apartment that I instantly said upon seeing it, “This is the one.”

It backs up to the neighborhood with a clear view of Lanier Middle School where every morning, Tucker walked beneath our deck on his way to 7th and then 8th grade. Gary and I leaned over the balcony. Me yelling, “I love you” and Gary telling him to “be pro all day”. And he was. Most of the time. We were close enough to hear the pledge of allegiance to both America and Texas quite clearly as we finished our morning coffee outside.

Never occurred to me we’d still be in this apartment two years later. And still building the house. Never thought Tucker would be in high school and we’d be signing a third lease here or a first lease somewhere else. This new reality has brought on a gross feeling of ennui. Yes, there’s been tremendous progress. Yes, there now sits part of a house. Yes, the second floor is decked. Yes, the roof trusses are in place. And yes, the nine skylights are framed.

I still ask, “Are we there yet?” No. We are not. And we really don’t know when we’ll actually get “there”. The thought of staying another year in this apartment feels like defeat. Are we winning the battles but losing the war?

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A STUDY IN BUILDING YOUR OWN HOUSE

Love takes hold, then leaves. Will it ever come back again?
House Demolition

New love intoxicates.

The rush to meet each day. Every nuance thrills. Secrets shared. A true common bond. You want everyone to know how happy you are. You can’t stop looking. This is really IT.

I had such a scintillating experience with the house I’m building. It was a thrilling relationship at one time. I was on a Pinterest high. An adrenaline party.

Gary and I conspired with an architect. We met every Saturday for a year. I’d bring books filled with pictures of my dream house, like a bride sharing photos of her dream wedding with a best friend.

Michael introduced us to a great bagel shop and had them hot on hand with a jalapeno cream spread. We’d talk about our love (of good design and architecture). Fantasies ran wild.

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A STUDY IN BUILDING YOUR OWN HOUSE

Living The Dream
House Demolition

This is a tale of two crazy 58-year-old kids (me & Gary) building our two-story home.

We’ve never built a house. No one can tell us how much it will cost. No one will venture a guess as to how long it will take. And no one will say (though we suspect most people think), we’ll never be able to do it. What people do tell us is that our relationship is doomed.

We threw caution to the wind and declared, “WHAT’S LIFE IF NOT LIVING FULLY?” and tore down my 1600 square foot, 89-year-old house to build in its place, a contemporary 3200 square foot home to share with our cantankerous cat Kaylee, my 12-year-old son Tucker and Gary’s 23-year-old son Thomas when visiting from Colorado.

Follow our journey as it unfolds in real time. Watch the documentary (currently in production). Live vicariously through our construction foibles, frustrations and frolics as we move at glacial speed in completing our dream home.

The venture started as “Let’s build our own house!” Turns out, it’s about “How will we choose to live while building this house?” Who knew we’d still be living AND WORKING “the dream” three years later?

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A STUDY IN BUILDING YOUR OWN HOUSE

In the Beginning
House Before Demo

My 89-year-old house wanted to call it quits. She had led a good long life (her last fifteen years with me) but was tired of the creaks, aches and pains that old age brings. She whispered her thoughts to me at night through the scurrying rats in her attic. By day, she let me know by not closing her front door all the way and by sinking more solidly into the ground. Guests no longer felt safe walking beneath her falling portico. Her pleas grew further pronounced as she started growing mildew on her walls and ceilings.

“Do you want me to fix you up and give you some extra years?” I asked. She responded by busting a pipe so deep inside her gut that it added $700 to that month’s water bill.

What to do? There were three of us living in all 1628 square feet of her (partner Gary, tween son Tucker and me). Our investigation began. Do we stay or move? Do we fix things up or do we rent or buy? Do we stay inside the loop or go outside the loop? Do we build a new house somewhere else or move into an existing one? Do we do this now or wait until we’ve saved more money?

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WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?

Year 2017
Jumbo Hotdog

This post, tinged with loss and sadness is really about hope and resilience. Or to put it more bluntly:

HOW DO YOU FIND A KERNEL OF HAPPINESS BURIED INSIDE A TURD LEFT ON YOUR DOORSTEP?

As a final act of defiance, 2017 had me fired from a long-standing end of the year job. Not that 2017 said, “You’re fired!” It was more like a, “We’re a non-profit and have used the money we normally award to you in other ways.”

“BULLSHIT!” I yelled at my computer (2017 was too chicken-shit to say this to my face or over the phone). When working with the new marketing employee last December, I figured it would be my last year with that company. As a freelancer, new employees are the kiss of death as making their own mark in their job is of vital import in both small and big ways.

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THESE ARE A FEW OF MY UN-FAVORITE THINGS

There's one born every minute...
Jumbo Hotdog

Hyperbole, statements of intended exaggeration, was once relegated to the circus and carnival midways: “See The Greatest show on Earth! Gasp at the Boy Donkey! Marvel at the Human Frogs! Be amazed by the Mermaid! Don’t miss the Monkey Woman!”

What a great way to get the family out for a little entertainment. I mean who wouldn’t want to check out “The dangerous Alligator Man” and finally confirm that a “Never ending ice cream eater” really does exist?

After a few carnivals, midway games and three ring circus fun, you might get that a “little” exaggeration went a long way, but half the adventure was checking it all out and getting lost in the fantasy.

Nowadays, hyperbole is overrated, unimaginative and just plain boring. Do any of us over the age of sixteen really believe the “This is a special message meant just for you” mailings sent by one of our modern-day PT Barnum’s? (Please forgive the comparison, Mr. Barnum).

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WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?

Friends
littlemer

Thinking about my 60th birthday this year, I wondered how I'd celebrate the momentous occasion. I knew I didn’t want the kind of party I threw when I turned 50.

For that affair a caterer and band were hired. I displayed my life on large canvases, so guests could view telegram congratulations to my parents, bottle feeding techniques of the fifties and pictures highlighting all the years leading up to my fiftieth birthday. I invited dozens of friends to a hip club. On stage, I belted out “Simply the Best” when jazz singer Yvonne Washington handed me a mic for our duet.

But something felt different about this birthday. I wasn’t interested in any hoopla as I started my sixth decade on this planet – just a desire to share the day with close friends and family.

So my attention turned to just who those friends and family might be. And wondering just how many of them would actually show up.

It turned out to be a short list.

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WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?

Husbands
Majestic Metro EXT Sign

Forced to go through boxes and boxes of stuff in order to move into a small apartment, forced me to go down memory lane.

The move was in anticipation of tearing down my 89-year-old home to make way for a new one that I hoped to build and move back into. A process that of this writing is closing in on TWO YEARS.

The boxes contained hundreds of photographs, mementos and videos of relationships I forged, fucked up or got fucked by. More precisely, memories of the two men I married and divorced.

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WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE OLD STUFF?

Preface
(Runner Up Non Fiction Glass Mountain Annual Poetry & Prose Contest)
Ouija Board

I’m on my fifth month of meticulous house cleaning. And by that I mean cleaning out my 1,600 square foot house…completely. The job of building a new home over the course of a year means me, Gary (my partner) and Tucker (my 13 year-old son) must take up temporary residence in a 1,000 square foot apartment along with Kaylee, our cantankerous cat.

So there has been the move into the apartment and the move into the storage unit. This requires incredible vision (mainly on my part I might add) - a look into our future – what do we need now and what can we live without for the next 12 months? And what should be trashed, recycled, sold or donated? How does one give up the ghosts? It’s a task I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy (actually, it's just the sort of thing I would).

The men in my life have no problem with this division of property. They packed some stuff then said, “I don’t care what you do with everything else. I’ve got what I need in this box.”

How can they be so cavalier toward their stuff? How can they not look through every book and re-read the paragraphs they highlighted years ago? How can they not try on their clothes to see what no longer fits, what sort of fits, what might fit later on? How can they not care about photographs, old magazines, letters received and sent (did they not keep copies of the really good ones they mailed)?

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BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME?

The McMansion Next Door
McMansion Nextdoor

I was having a conversation in Spanish with Ariela, the nanny from Monterey, Mexico, who lives with my recently married, recently parented, recently home- owning neighbors across the street. She was pushing their baby in a swing they recently attached to the venerable front yard tree (the only thing left of the 1928 home they recently demolished).

But let me be honest, when I say a “conversation in Spanish,” I mean my broken, basic grasp of that language with Ariela, who speaks no English

The young dad came out and as any good nosy neighbor would do, I asked about the home he and his wife are building to sell. A year ago, they purchased the 1,048 square foot, one story 1929 bungalow next door to me from the distant relatives of, God rest his soul David, my dead neighbor. They quickly tore it down. With the exception of increasing the rat population now scurrying in my attic, that was a good thing.

Their spec home is partially completed and towers above my two-story crumbling abode, taking up close to the entire lot. I nonchalantly asked how big it was going to be. “Six bedrooms, 5,300 or so square feet,” was his answer. I guess he noticed my widening eyes and added, “Well, we have to build what this neighborhood is asking for.” And with that, he turned on his heel and took off for a jog down our construction-laden street.

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IF A CONFESSION FALLS AND NO ONE IS AROUND TO HEAR IT, DOES IT STILL MAKE A SIN?

(Robertson Prize Nonfiction Winner)
Meri First Holy Communion

The drills happened every Wednesday night -- up at St. Francis de Chantal. The earthly saints, bound in black and white, snapped the whip as we recited our catechism lessons, instructions and protocol —beating and berating us with the seriousness of it all. Our First Holy Communion.

As part of this religious rite of passage, we had to prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (as they call it now). Back then we just called it, “going to confession”. And it was up to me to come up with mine. I worked on it for months.

How far back should I go? Should I start big and work my way down? Or inch my way up to my worst transgressions? Should I include all of them or save some for later? What if they’re too bad? What if they’re too good? What if I don’t have enough? What if I have too many?

The saints never told us how long a confession should be.

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IN THE BEGINNING

Meri in Red Sneakers

The first time I lied I was four. I stood my ground, digging my size one’s into the carpet. Unwilling to admit the truth, I was ordered to bed with no milk and cookies. It was a seminal moment for me.

I was living with my father’s old and beloved Aunt Bella and Uncle Bill, while my very sick and pregnant mother was in the hospital and my out-of-his-mind father and three older sisters were back at home an hour away. I had never been alone before and believe this experience was life changing - irrevocably separating me from my family’s identity, sometimes in big, loud and rowdy ways and sometimes like a whisper.

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