Nov 30 2010

The American Economy, Explained

So, you know how when you get a credit card bill, on the little slip they give you to send back there’s a place to write in your change of address? I made the mistake of relying on those little slips to update our address with our creditors when we moved. It worked in exactly zero percent of the cases. PRO TIP: Nobody looks at anything you write on those little slips. They take the check out and throw the rest away with a quickness. I’m not even convinced that there are human beings removing the checks from the envelopes. I think it may all be done by robots these days, or maybe by small children in China.

Anyway, so, there was some confusion with our bills for a few months, but we had mail forwarding and so most of the statements reached me. When I got a statement that had been sent to our old address, I called them up, which was a pain because it always involved navigating a dumb automated phone tree system, but eventually everybody had our new address.

Everybody, that is, except for the people that have my student loan debt. I never got a statement from them, and so, because I was preoccupied with things like moving and having a baby, I forgot about them. A few months later they managed to track me down by phone to inform me that I was behind on my payments. “Oh, right,” I say. “We moved, let me give you my new address. Can you send me a copy of the latest statement?” Sure, they say. We’ll send it right out. Meanwhile, would I like to make a payment by phone to bring my account current? “Okey-dokey artichokey!” I say, at which point I am transferred to an automated system that demands my account number. My account number? I have no idea what my account number is, on account of I haven’t seen a statement in six months. I actually tried calling back, to ask if I could give the payment info to a living person, but after waiting around on hold for forty-five minutes I was informed that the automated system is the only option for payments. So I threw up my hands and figured I’d just pay the bill when it came in the mail.

A few weeks go by, no statement, but I do get an e-mail from the student loan people! The e-mail tells me that apparently my contact info needs to be updated and will I please go to their website to put in my new address. So, I try this, but of course the first thing they want is my account number. Without much hope, I try replying to the e-mail and including a brief description of the problem as well as my new address.

No response to the e-mail, but meanwhile, the student loan people are starting to harass my parents, wanting to know my new address. “Should I give it to them?” my dad wants to know. “You’re not on the lam from these people or anything?” I assured him that I want them to have my new address, and expressed the hope that they might actually believe in it coming from him.

I got a few more phone calls, but they were all automated. Eventually there was a living person on the line again, and I asked her for my account number, so that I could pay online or via their automated system. No sirree! she tells me. We can’t give out account numbers over the phone! “Um, can you e-mail it to me?” Oh no. But we can fax you a form that you can fax back in order to request that information be sent to you by mail.

“Uh huh,” I say. “Well, let me give you my new address…”

She goes tappity tappity tappity, and informs me that this address is not valid. When I assure her that it’s where I get all my other mail, she only repeats that “It’s marked in our system as invalid.”

A few days later, my grandmother sent me a letter. Enclosed was a form sent to her by the student loan people. Apparently they want to know my new address.

Meanwhile, it seems that the various credit bureaus have been informed that I’ve defaulted on my student loans. Now the first clue I had about this came when I started receiving a rash of letters from banks, offering me credit. I was a bit mystified by these letters at first because they all made reference to “your financial struggles.” The message was: “You’re struggling, and we want to help! Please let us extend you credit!”

So for anybody who was confused, this is why the American economy is the way it is.

Epilogue: I finally figured out why they had our address marked as invalid. The statement was addressed to “Jo S. Cochran,” and since all my other mail comes to “Shannon Phillips”—and because we get a lot of mail addressed to previous inhabitants of the house, which we always mark Return to Sender and give back to the postman—our friendly neighborhood postal delivery dude had taken it upon himself to bounce back the student loan statements along with the other misaddressed mail. After spending a lot of time on the phone I convinced the student loan people to send another bill, still to Jo Cochran but this time marked “c/o Phillips.” (They couldn’t just update my name, you see, not over the phone: they’ll need to see a copy of our marriage license and my California ID before taking such a measure. Why? WHO KNOWS. Our banks and our credit cards were happy to update my name on my merest say-so, but these people are obviously lunatics, so.) Anyway, I finally got a bill and I finally paid it, and even though my credit score will suffer a lot from this whole debacle, it doesn’t actually matter as we’re not going to be making any big purchases on credit any time soon. THE END.

Nov 21 2010

Gold Star Husband

Today I got to sleep in (until ten o’clock, which is pretty impressive considering that the boys were up at six) and when Sam woke me up it was with French toast, strawberries, and coffee. Sam has been making weekend breakfasts his “thing,” an initiative of which I approve so much I may burst.

Then he played me a sweet, silly song:

I am so very happily married.

Nov 20 2010

What’s for Dinner

I was proud of us this morning: after picking up our veggie box at the farmer’s market, we drove straight to the nearby Redwood Regional Park and had a gorgeous hike. It rained a bit this morning—and is raining torrentially as I write this, complete with Gothic lightning and dramatic peals of thunder—but for the two hours we were out, the skies stayed clear. And probably because of the bad weather, we had the trails mostly to ourselves: we wandered through a hushed forest cathedral as yellow leaves drifted down all about us. The forest floor is swathed with primeval ferns, and punctuated by these amazing twisty trees with moss-velvet trunks, and the smell of the redwoods and bay laurels in the new rain was—well, you know, it’s really hard to describe a smell! But it smelled very good.

Then we went home and unpacked our vegetables. We got beets, two pints of strawberries, carrots, kale, cabbage, onions, broccoli, three pears, six apples, four plums, four green peppers, four zukes, two artichokes, and seven small yellow potatoes. JP told me that his family will be on vacation for the next month, so we won’t get another veggie box until January 15. But this week is obviously all about Thanksgiving. Tonight we’re eating…fast-food takeout. It was 2:30 when we got home, we hadn’t had lunch, and the fridge was almost empty, so in a fit of low blood sugar we got a chicken and some sides from Boston Market. I really don’t like buying meat when I don’t know where it’s from or how it was raised: Boston Market chickens are almost certainly battery-farmed, under conditions that I think amount to animal torture, and I know it’s wrong to support that. But this afternoon we did, and we have lots of chicken left over, so I guess we’re having guilt for dinner.

But tomorrow night we’ll have some nice grass-fed steaks with roasted broccoli, and Sam says he’ll make French toast with strawberries for breakfast. Monday we’ll polish off the cabbage, potatoes, and carrots—boiled, and served with butter and salt and crispy bacon. Tuesday, quinoa-stuffed peppers and sauteed zucchini; Wednesday, squash soup and a salad with roasted beets and blue cheese. (Wednesday we’ll also see Nanita and Marqueño!)

THURSDAY…Turkey! Sausage and fennel stuffing! Maybe some gravy depending on how tired I am when it comes time to make gravy! Cranberry-orange sauce! Brussels sprouts! Persimmon-apple pie!


Nov 15 2010

Green Batman

green batman

So Robin has these “play silks” in various colors. Last night his father tied the red one around his shoulders, and Robin was jumping around declaring himself Superboy. This morning he brought me the green one, and as soon as I tied it on him he identified himself as “Green Batman.” He then instructed me to say “Thank you, Batman!”

So, if you see Green Batman, I guess now you know what to say.

Edited to add: Batman humor, always funny!

Nov 10 2010

Yard Work

When we bought this house, the front yard was a jungle of sticker-weeds. It was one of the first things the neighbors said to us, after “Hello” and “Welcome to the neighborhood”—”So…what are you going to do with that yard?”

At the time I said something breezy about having it landscaped. And in fact I did set up an appointment with a landscaper. She said it would cost five thousand dollars to haul away all the trash and put in a front yard of drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs with a drip irrigation system and extensive soil amendment. I said, “Hmm, thank you, we’ll think about that.” And we did. We thought, very briefly, about the fact that we do not have five thousand dollars, and if we did, we would have a better use for it than setting up a irrigation system for plants that don’t mind drought.

So between the time we moved in and now, we have done very little to the yard. We hacked down the big thorny things, and then we just kind of waited to see what would happen. Over the dry, hot summer, of course, nothing happened: around here, most plants and grasses go dormant over the summer unless they’re being watered. Now the fall rains have started up, and greenery is sprouting everywhere. So to help it along a bit, we ordered a few things from a native plant nursery, and we have just finished planting them.

My fondest hopes are pinned on the manzanita tree. Here it is, as of today:


It’s the little shrub cowering behind the rock in the foreground. It doesn’t look like much now, but if it thrives, it will eventually grow to be about ten feet tall. In January and February it will bear clusters of beautiful pink flowers that the hummingbirds will fight over. The rest of the year it will have splendid red bark and glossy green leaves, and it will provide berries for chipmunks and shelter for birds. I really hope our manzanita tree is happy here.

That unsightly dead trunk you see in the background will be cut down, one of these days. After some consideration I’ve decided to let the jade plant (the bush on the right) live, even though it is not native to California. Neither am I, after all. If it doesn’t ask anything of me—because it’s not going to get water or fertilizer or any other kind of intervention—then I won’t ask anything of it.

My second-fondest hopes concern our new mountain lilac bush. I took a picture of it too but it was so small as to be effectively invisible. If it grows, though, it will turn into this beauty.

I also planted a couple of different wildflowers, just as an experiment, to see if they can compete against the volunteer grasses:

wildflower plantings

If they do well I’ll get more, and I’m also planning to sow some California poppies from seed. Those guys are really hardy and I think they probably will be able to compete.

In the back yard, my camillia bushes are glorious with flower. Well, one of them is:

healthy camillia

The other one Sam butchered with a pair of gardening shears, despite the fact that I begged him to leave it alone. I literally wept when I saw what he’d done with it.


He says he “got carried away.” I don’t know how a person can reduce a lush, full shrub to a skeleton without realizing at some point what they’re doing, especially when their wife is pleading with them to put down the shears and step away from the plant: I think he kept going just to be contrary, because he didn’t want to be told what to do. I am still heartbroken about it. As you can see this bush is hardly bearing any flowers this year. I think it will grow back eventually, poor thing.

I am obviously still harboring a grudge over the camillia bush, but I have mostly forgiven Sam, not least because I want to get more work out of him. This weekend his dad is coming down to help us put up a fence around the back yard, so I am looking forward to admiring the menfolk as they do all the hard manual labor on that one. Maybe I’ll put on a nice apron and serve lemonade.

Nov 8 2010

What’s for Dinner

Saturday in our veggie box we got: spinach, lettuce, green beans, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, six apples, five plums, two little artichokes, two leeks, and seven Yukon Gold potatoes. But it rained all weekend and I’m sick (I got a cough from Davy; he’s fine now and I’m on the mend, but I felt pretty bad for most of last week). So we didn’t manage to drag ourselves to grocery store. Instead we had Swedish meatballs from IKEA on Saturday night (and we were very grateful to Nonna and Pappy who stocked our freezer with the meatballs!) and pizza last night. Tonight, I have chicken stock and some leftover cooked chicken on hand, so I think I’ll put them together along with a couple of carrots, a handful of rice, and the celery that’s been sitting at the bottom of the crisper for a while to make a soup: it probably won’t be the best chicken soup ever, but hopefully it’ll still be passable. Then after dinner we’ll hit the grocery store.

Tomorrow, if it’s not raining, I want to grill some chicken breasts—well, I’ll get Sam to grill the chicken breasts, as everybody knows that applying fire to meat is man’s work. But I’ll make an apple-mustard grilling sauce, and a salad to go on the side. Tuesday I’ll use the spinach in a pasta recipe that Cook’s Illustrated calls “Skillet penne with spinach and sausage”—it’s really good, I should post the recipe. Wednesday we’ll have a cauliflower/potato soup with leeks and a loaf of home-made bread. Thursday, a veggie dinner of green beans and potatoes and roasted broccoli, and Friday, leftovers.

Nov 8 2010

Stinky Skunk

The new game in our household is called TICKLE THE STINKY SKUNK. First, you must catch a skunk:

stinky skunk 1

They aren’t hard to catch.

When you have your skunk, you may tickle him, provided you cry “TICKLE THE STINKY SKUNK!” as you do so.

And that’s it, that’s the game. The rules are simple, and all the players win.

Nov 1 2010

What’s for Dinner

Okay, I love living in California. This week in our CSA box we got a pint of strawberries—fresh strawberries! In the last week of October! We also got spinach, lettuce, bok choy, green beans, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, bell peppers, six apples (they’re Fuji, I asked; and last week’s tomatoes were, ironically enough, Early Girl), four plums, six of what look like Red Bliss potatoes, and some more sunchokes.

Tonight we’re having skirt steak and green beans. In fact, just now Davy started crying while I was in the middle of smearing marinade on the steak. Because my hands were full of garlic-rosemary paste I went about finishing what I was doing instead of going immediately to pick up the baby. Then he abruptly stopped crying, and that did bring me running—only to find that Robin was in there with him, kissing his toes and asking “What’s wrong, baby?” What a good big brother! Robin has his weaknesses—we’re still stalled out on potty training—but his strengths are wonderful strengths to have. He’s a friendly, generous, secure and loving boy, and frankly if I were told that I could have all that in a son in exchange for delayed potty training, that’s a trade I’d be happy to make.

I almost added something there about Robin not being very verbal, but actually I’m not at all sure that’s true. Even though he’s talking a lot more now, it’s still not as much as some of the other kids his age—but at the same time he’s extremely interested in written language. He recognizes all the letters of the alphabet and initiates a lot of conversations about letters, the sounds they make, and the words that start with various letters: right now he’ll often come running up saying “C! Cat! Kitty! K!” and then follow that up by going “cuh cuh cuh.” I’m pretty sure he’s working on the problem that different words can refer to the same thing, and different letters can make the same sound, which I think actually puts him a bit ahead of the curve for reading/writing. It’s not something I’m actively working on with him—I mean, we do read books, and when he wants to stop and pay attention to the letters, we do that, but I’m not trying to push him into being an early reader or anything. I’m just making a note to myself not to be too quick to make sweeping assessments of Robin’s strengths and weaknesses, because they may be more granular than I expect, and in any case they’re obviously still developing.

We got Robin on the waiting list for a preschool, by the way, and we’re signed up to take a tour of another preschool (the one that we could walk to) in February. Both schools say they will likely have openings next fall. I would like to get him more opportunities to socialize with kids his own age a little sooner, so we might look into signing him up for a Saturday toddler dance class or something like that. We watched Hello, Dolly! the other night and Robin loved the dance sequences. It was hilarious to watch him doing his best to follow along, twirling and kicking all over the living room.

Anyway, meal planning. Tomorrow night I’m roasting another chicken, along with the potatoes and maybe the sunchokes (unless I decide to just compost them instead). Wednesday night I’ll make a homemade spinach-and-ricotta pizza with whole wheat crust, and Thursday we’ll have grilled sausages, onions, and peppers, with a salad on the side to use up the remaining veggies. Friday will be for leftovers.

Bonus picture: Davy and Nonna!

Davy and Nonna