22 February 2011

Disposable Income (originally 9 February 2011)

When my husband and I got a $1500 heating bill I didn’t panic.  I turned down the heat – I turned it way down and I put on two sweaters – but I didn’t panic.  After all, this is our first winter in the new house.  The windows are drafty.  The ceilings are high.  The baby is home with my mother so the heat stays up even during the day.  There were bound to be some miscalculations along the way, such as how warm I should expect to be able to feel in my own home without falling into penury.  Lesson learned.

The reality is that we have a reserve set aside for just such unforeseen events and also, for the very first time, we are more than breaking even.  It is close some months, but that is to be expected when you buy an enormous crumbling edifice masquerading as charmingly turn-of-the-century in addition to being responsible for student loans of the magnitude that I carry with me.  (Thank you once again to my husband for not fleeing at the mention of all those little zeros.)  So I did not need to panic.  I just needed to readjust the thermostat and move on.

I find myself in this situation all too often, however.  It is not only the heating bill. At the very beginning it was the spindly pine in the front yard and the handful of other mostly dead trees that needed removing right after we moved in.  I knew from Billy Crystal that there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.  For those who go by the moniker of the Dread Pirate Roberts this is the difference between rescuing the princess and thus riding off on a white horse into the sunset and not doing those things.  For trees, however, we were told by the arborist it didn’t matter one bit.  Mostly dead can still fall onto the neighbors’ roof.

Then there was the matter of filling the house with things – things like curtains and carpets and throw pillows – in order to make it feel a little bit more like a home. But even when the credit card bills came pouring in I didn’t panic.  These were one-time purchases, I told both myself and my husband.  Many, many one-time purchases, but one-time purchases still.  I took satisfaction in sharing my accomplishments with Daryl upon his return from work on the days I had found myself especially industrious.  “What do you think?” I asked as I led him into the family room to show him the bolsters and other accent pillows decorating our new daybed.  “I think Pier One just threw up in here,” was his response, and I knew I had done exactly what I set out to do.

We would take it step by step, I reasoned.  There was no way to feel settled in all at once.  It took months to get around to painting Emmaline’s room, but eventually the holes in the plaster were patched and the smudges of grime and bleak dorm room off-white were covered over in a cheery grassy green.  Drapes were hung over the huge picture windows in the living room to keep them from bleeding heat or at least attempt to staunch the flow.  The dining room and guest room were given a splash of color.  We were gaining ground.

Then we got Scout.

I understand in the part of my brain that logically processes information that she is a puppy and thus expected to chew.  I also understand that there are bound to be some casualties along the way.  I am not one of those people who expect things to be perfect.  I am not one of those people who expect things to be even moderately nice.  Take my car for example, a 1999 Volvo station wagon we bought last year from a skinny twenty-something-year-old man-child who may or may not have been part of the Lithuanian mob.  “All wheel drive,” he had said, sidling up to the prize, moving his hand over the solid tank-like exterior.  And we had jumped, jumped because we had to – we needed a car and we needed it cheap and we wanted it safe and also we wanted the decision just to be made.  But all wheel drive requires a drive shaft, something our car (we were soon to discover) did not have.  Lesson learned, once again.  At least it is still, for the moment, willing to run.

The radio (as an aside) is a different matter – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  It seems to be a matter of getting electricity to that central panel in the front with all the dials and knobs, most of which don’t function even when the radio begrudgingly turns on.  After parking the lemon by valet at the Mandarin Oriental, a not un-nice establishment at which my husband’s work was throwing an event, it was returned to us with the radio (and thus also the heat) stubbornly refusing to engage.  We were double parked on Boylston Street and clearly expected to put the car in gear and briskly drive away.  But it was a cold night.  I wanted heat.  Upon my urging Daryl cut the engine and then turned the ignition again.  He repeated the maneuver.  Eventually, like the computers in the Command Module of Apollo 13, the circuits flickered wanly to life.  With the parking attendants watching, a mixture of bewilderment and pity on their windblown faces, we eventually drove away.

So fine, I don’t need nice things.  But the things that are nice, the things I bought on sale but not necessarily on clearance, I do wish I could keep that way.  Not so, declares Scout, who promptly upon being adopted worked her way doggedly through an assortment of shoes, ferociously tore Em’s stuffed animals from limb to limb, and gnawed through the straws on a wide variety of sippy cups.  Replaceable items, certainly, but few of them are likely to be replaced.  The stuffed animals themselves, many of them gifts or inherited from my own childhood, are not strictly essential to life.  They are soft, yes.  Emmaline reaches out for them and calls them by name or else makes the animal noise associated with their particular species in a plaintive request and, yes, of course it is adorable when she rubs them against her face and looks at them with such devotion that your heart breaks to think that there is so much love in your child for an inanimate object that surely she will change the world with all the good she is destined to do.  But no, they are not strictly necessary in life.

Still, it makes me panic at times, in a way that my heart attack provoking mammoth heating bill failed to.  We will pay it.  We will turn the heat down. Problem solved.  It’s a bummer, but we will move on.  But with the other thing – Scout’s constant spiriting away of plush toys and magazines and Tupperware containers to the exact spot under the dining room where she is unreachable and thus can eviscerate or shred or fracture said items in peace – I come almost to tears over several times a week. 

It is not only the things.  It is not only the energy directed at avoiding disaster that is attention diverted from Emmaline since she’s too busy burying her face in Scout’s side or patting the dog’s head to notice how frazzled I am. 
It is the knowledge that it will never end.  It is the acceptance that I am absolutely powerless to eliminate this behavior right away.  We are making progress here as in all the rest of it.  She is a much better dog than she was when we got her, ribs showing and so desperate for love that she would bounce up and nip at your face.  And there are times when she is the sweetest dog you will ever meet. 
I love her and have begun to feel, finally, that she is part of the family.  I do not wish she had never come, or at least I do not wish this as often as I used to.  But I also know there will be more than a few expletive-invoking incidents before she grows out of this phase and that no amount of nervous hovering will ever be equal to her ability to gauge exactly the right moment to snatch and grab.  As such, for the time being at least, my disposable income is destined to continue to be just that – disposable.

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