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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Name Change

I didn't know, couldn't have known, what this blog would develop into when I began it six months ago.  Friends and family have given me much advice on improving its content and readership.  People wonder how I can turn this into something more; they want it to be something more - for me.  I'm sent links on how to develop the blog into an enterprise.  Some advocates offer that perhaps I should consider focusing on a single - or at least more refined - theme. Other readers are simply more interested in how I can generate revenue from my writing.  Up to this point, I've resisted most of the suggestions.  I still consider this undertaking as an early juncture in my writing career and at this point I am most interested in writing for its own sake, for my sake.  And while I'd welcome getting paid to write, I don't want to write about things which don't appeal to me.  I might be too stubborn for my own good, but there's also something to be said for not compromising on things in which you strongly believe.  And frankly, from an income standpoint, writing isn't entirely practical or especially promising these days.  You might have noticed the glut in the market.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, "Freelance writing fees -- beginning with the Internet but extending to newspapers and magazines -- have been spiraling downward for a couple of years and reached what appears to be bottom in 2009." The fact of the matter is I am not a proven writing professional.  And with a family, I am beyond the phase of living the life of a starving artist.  Eventually - soon! - I'll require adequate compensation for my time.  There are bills to be paid, college savings accounts to fund, and the inevitable need for replacing car tires.  This said, I've received enough personal satisfaction as well as encouragement from readers that I'll continue to write.  And I do hope that one day my writing will be a channel for financial remuneration (can you say, "book deal?"), but like a lot of people who do things they love, I won't necessarily be writing for the money.  I've explained it like this:  For too long I tried to figure out how to enjoy what I got paid to do, but could never sustain that model for long.  Today I am instead focused on monetizing things I enjoy.  So while I might not make a lot of money writing, I believe that if I pursue the passion, and as Conan O'Brien said, if I am a kind person, amazing things will happen.

When I began this blog, I had a notion that it would be the seed of a online magazine for which I'd serve as editor-in-chief.  And while this idea isn't dead, it is most certainly under the weather.  The 50 plus posts of the last half year have been observational, instructional, autobiographical, and for me, therapeutic.  I've written about childhood, financial independence, travel, health, personal tragedy, the value of work and the inaneness of punching a clock, the importance of perspective, and the ephemerality of life. What began as a potential vehicle for income has morphed into a digest centering on my life experiences and the lessons I continue to learn from them.

My father - who's authored several books - has, along with his praise, offered valuable constructive criticism on my writing.  (I might also note that my mother has been a diligent and appreciated editor - you'll often find that two days after I post, a cleaner version miraculously appears.) My dad recently pointed out the disconnect between the blog title and its content.  The blog hasn't exactly been, as the original blog title suggested, the "Collective Intelligence" of multiple writers. Rather it's been my interpretation of my experiences.  The writing seems to center on how I'm developing and growing and the meditations that accompany this evolution.  And in the end, it's about how I view the world in which I live.  As per my dad's suggestion I am unveiling the new blog title today:

Growing Up David

Below is my dad's explanation:
  • Growing up David — The meaning here is that the blog is concerned with how David is growing into the person the blog describes.   That is, Dave is a work in process.
  • Growing up David — The meaning here is that Dave is in the throes of growing up, i.e., Dave grows up.
  • Growing up David — This means that you are this person, David, distinct and inimitable, who has this particular identity and name.

I look forward to writing more about how I came to be who I am and sharing more as I continue to develop.  I'll ruminate on being a husband and dad; I'll offer thoughts on living a healthier, more meaningful, and to some, alternative life. I'll reminisce from time to time on my adventures as a boy, adolescent, and young man.  But there's also much happening in my life now and in the near future that's sure to be ripe fodder for engaging and entertaining posts.  For example, I am currently training for the 2010 Boston Marathon - and doing many of my runs quasi-barefoot.  (Recent snippet in Time about that.)  I have committed to sustaining my wife's family land - which has been passed down through the Mathewson generations since it was purchased from Native Americans in 1707.  As if that weren't enough to fill my time, I was recently cast in a play at a local community theater, The Bradley Playhouse in Putnam, Connecticut.  The play is called The Foreigner by Larry Shue.  I'll be making my theatrical debut playing the title character, Charlie - an exceedingly shy man who in order to avoid conversation pretends he is unable to understand English.  Hilarity ensues.

Thanks for reading, sharing, and your feedback.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Making Cents

Like a lot of people my first experience with money was receiving a nominal weekly stipend in exchange for doing my chores.  This payment was called an 'Allowance' and with it, I'd go to Phil's - the local penny candy store - and blow it all on Jolly Ranchers and Bazooka Bubble Gum.  If I owned a piggy bank, I don't remember it and if I had one, I'd have busted it open long before it was full of change.

When, as a child, our family went to Cape Cod with friends, we spent a week in Craigville Beach.  I was given 20 dollars for the week.  My friend Liz and I immediately went to the Craigville General Store where I promptly spent every last cent on candy.  My more prudent sister chided me for squandering all my money on candy and for eating nearly all of it by the next day.

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As I grew older and finagled ways to earn a few bucks on my own - shoveling snow, mowing lawns and the occasional babysitting job - the money never accumulated.  I can't begin to tell you what I bought.  I probably ingested most of it, purchased a few cassette tapes, and a video cartridge or two for my Coleco Vision.

When I turned 16, I got a job - a real job complete with a paycheck and tax deductions - as a dishwasher at the now defunct Mansfield Depot Restaurant.  I worked a few shifts a week, usually going in sometime after school - around 3 or 4pm and leaving late, after the last dinner guests had departed, the pots had been scrubbed and the floor mopped.  I earned something less than $4/hr, but was nonetheless thrilled to see paychecks approaching $80.

My father made a deal with me that whatever money I saved for a car, he'd match.  I opened a savings account at the local bank in town and for the first time in my life began to set money aside for a major purchase.  My savings benefited from the free meals I got at the restaurant, though I am sure my dentist can attest to the fact that I was still devoting a consistent portion of my salary toward confectionery.

After about a year, I'd saved nearly $1200 and with my dad's matching funds, purchased a 1974 Volvo 164E.  I named him Ingmar Gustav Volvo Ring.  He was blue and the automatic transmission slipped when shifting from 1st to 2nd gear, making a loud clunking sound that could be felt along the floor boards.  The car was solid like a Volvo should be.  It must have weighed as much as a circus elephant and its rear wheel drive made for atrocious winter traction.  I loved it.  It was truly the first time I made a direct connection between work and meaningful compensation.  Alas, the money I made poured into the car in the form of gasoline and repairs.

(As an aside - a bit more on the fate of Gustav:  The car lasted about a year and half until one spring evening on the way back from a Red Sox game.  I was driving with three German foreign exchange students riding in the rear.  I was cajoled into racing my friend Charles back to Connecticut.  We sped along the Mass Pike, driving as stupidly and dangerously as only a 17 year old can.  I remember the Germans in the back seat chanting, "Do a hundred, do a hundred!"  And while I didn't quite reach those speeds I was going fast enough to enlarge what was already a small oil leak.  As the car slowly bled oil, I failed to notice the rising temperature gauge.  Finally devoid of any lubricant, the sizzling engine block revolted, seized, and threw a rod, busting a fist sized hole in the engine block.  Those Germans will never forget that ride.  We arranged for them to be driven home by my friend while I was relegated to calling my mom to pick me up in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere - ironically that middle of nowhere is mere minutes from where I now reside.  The car was towed to a garage and then to a family friend's house.  We had notions of replacing the engine, but like a lot of notions, it was a foolhardy one.  The car was abandoned and for all I know Gustav's skeleton is still sitting atop a hill off a hidden drive on Mt. Hope Rd. in Mansfield Center, Connecticut.)

When I drove trolley tours, both in Boston and Key West,  a lot of my income came in the form of cash tips.  This was true of my days as a waiter, too.  Walking away from a shift with a hundred dollars in my pocket made me feel like I was a high roller, but after a drink or two with colleagues, I was doing the grownup equivalent of blowing all my cash on candy.  But I had learned how to save a bit and when there was something I desired, I was diligent about setting aside the money to pay for it.  In 1993 when I wanted to finance a vacation to New Orleans for the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four, I squirreled away $5 bills everyday until I had several hundred dollars to pay for the trip.  Over the years, I've plied the same tactic to pay for other cars, vacations, investments, gifts, a wedding, a honeymoon, and an adoption.  When I was working in the corporate world, a portion of my salary was automatically deducted and put into long term savings/retirement vehicles.  Increasingly my use of credit cards waned and the vast majority of my purchases were paid for with savings.

I've read a host of books on personal finance and savings - a salient point of several of them relied on putting aside 10% of gross income into compound interest bearing accounts.  I loved a book called the Wealthy Barber.  It spoke to me in the simplest of terms:  live frugally, live below your means, pay yourself first - every month!, spend money on expertise you don't possess, and stop trying the keep up with the Joneses.

These lessons weren't instilled in me, though surely they were told to me.  I try not to rue the wasted spending of my youth - indeed I got to experience a lot owing to a decided lack of frugality.  But as I grow older and know the value of a dollar -  how hard they are to both accrue and retain, I am resolved to teach these lessons to my son and to do so by example.  I might on occasion still let a few extra dollars slip out of my palms, but only after I've put my 10% into that compound interest bearing account.

And best of all, I can still chomp down a bag of candy like I could when I was eight years-old.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I am not often given to the highs and lows of outward emotion.  When I am happy you can see it in my eyes.  When I am sad you'll have to look more carefully to find it there, too.  I laugh heartily when amused, but I won't patronize a banal joke with more than a polite smile.  When I am sad, I'm simply quiet and taciturn.  Sometimes I don't realize the sadness that dwells inside of me and am genuinely surprised to feel the emotion.  Without warning it percolates in my chest, rises up through my throat to my mouth and causes my lips quiver ever so slightly.  Only occasionally do I feel tears well in my eyes, but even more rarely do they overflow their banks.

With the recent earthquake in Haiti and all the television coverage of it, I cannot help feeling beaten down with anguish and grief for all those that have lost so much and so many.  It's beyond incomprehensible and at the same time so unambiguous.  It hasn't helped my mood that it's January - the dead of winter .  It has seemed especially gray here the last couple of days.  The trees are bare and the air possesses the kind of damp chill that beckons one to bed, inviting sleep until spring.  And silly as it sounds - and is, the sports teams I root for have greatly faltered of late.  The Patriots were summarily dismissed from the NFL play-offs and the UConn Men's Basketball team has lost three painful games in a row.  It just adds to the malaise.

I know I have much to be grateful for - and I am, but there are times when just feeling happy doesn't scratch my emotional itch.  It's times like these I tend to miss my stillborn son, Leo, most acutely.  Had he lived he'd be about six months old now.  I can't help but wonder what our son Max would make of having a little brother.  How jealous would he be if he had to compete for our attention?  How different would the dynamics in our family be if Leo hadn't....  We had a friend visiting with her daughter this weekend and Max was being so sweet with her, sharing his toys and giving the little girl her bottle of milk when it fell to the floor.  "Here you go," he said in his sweet, lilting voice.  I couldn't help but imagine him with Leo and feel both Leo's presence and absence at the same time.

Most days, most weeks even, I do okay with the loss of Leo.  It is and I cannot change it.  I try to derive lessons from and use the experience to help me live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.  And I do.  Cosmically speaking, I feel that I haven't really lost Leo at all - that he's with me, with us everyday.  But he's not tangible.  The pictures we have of him are the way he'll always look.  We have lost something that we can never replace.  What's often worse is that I don't even know exactly what it is we've lost - just what I imagine it might have been.  I don't and won't know him as a person.  And when I am given to this sadness as I have been in these recent days since the Haiti earthquake, it's that absence that I feel most profoundly. When I see the anguish on the face of a Haitian quake victim, I can't help but deeply empathize.  One moment it's there; the next it's gone.  A void forever gaping.

Yesterday I watched most of a program about the Young@Heart Chorus, a group of elderly singers from the Northampton, Massachusetts area.  The show on PBS documented the chorus as they prepared for a live concert.  Just a week before the show, two chorus members passed away.  But show business is show business and the show went on.  I ached for those singers and the loss I knew they felt.  Just as we've 'gone on' in the wake of our loss, I knew that in spite of their brave faces lay heavy tears in wait.  One of the chorus members, Fred Knittle, was to have sung a duet of Coldplay's "Fix You" with one of the recently deceased chorus members.  Instead he took center stage alone.  The poignancy was more than palpable.

For me, the combination of the immeasurable suffering in Haiti, the bleakness of winter, the collapse of my favorite teams, of seeing Max being so tender with a younger child who wasn't his brother, and the sorrow of these elderly singers losing their fellow chorus members set me up for what I should have seen coming.  As I watched Fred Knittle shuffle his aging body on stage, lower himself into that solitary metal folding chair, and heard the rhythmic 'shhh, shhh, shhh' of his oxygen canister fill the auditorium, I began to feel that rare but familiar tightness in my gut.  I felt the muscles in my face brace for the inevitable and involuntary contortion of sorrow; my eyes welled.  Tears didn't stream down my face and no sounds of woe emanated from my mouth, but then again, I am not given to the highs and lows of emotional displays.

Click here to watch Fred Knittle and the Young@Heart Chorus perform Coldplay's "Fix You."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Root for the UConn Huskies

If you know me well you know that I am more than a casual fan of UConn Men's Basketball.  If you know me better than well, you know that I didn't even attend UConn.  In fact, I went to the University of Massachusetts and while I do root for the Minutemen, The Huskies have been a part of my life as long as I can remember, before I was born in a manner of speaking.

My dad took a job as a professor in UConn's psychology department in the early 60s.  Later he courted my mom who was living in New York City and in 1969 they were married and driving cross country to California for his sabbatical.  Somewhere along the way, I was conceived and in December of 1969 after they returned from the West Coast, I was born in Willimantic, CT - just a few miles from the UConn campus in Storrs.

Storrs is a section of the town of Mansfield which was incorporated in 1702.  The university began as Storrs Agricultural College in 1881 and still excels in the study of animals, farming, and natural resources.  For those of us who grew up in the Storrs/Mansfield area, the UConn campus was the center of most of our activity.  Drive off campus and the landscape quickly becomes wooded, rural, and bucolic.  Campus was where all the action was (and still is!).  There were movie theaters and galleries, museums and performance halls.  There was the Student Union with its cafeteria, ice cream fountain, and basement hall of video games.  There was the UConn Dairy Bar with its delicious freshly made ice cream.  And there were the athletic facilities, the hockey rink, the baseball fields, the tennis courts, the soccer field, and the indoor field house.

Growing up in the early 80s, the sport that dominated was UConn Men's Soccer.  Coached by the legendary Joe Morrone, the team was a perennial contender for the National Championship, winning it under Morrone in 1981 (and again in 2000).  The soccer stadium is where we kids wanted to be on game day, there and nowhere else.  I'd go with my mom and my sister and friends of our family.  We'd sit behind the goal and when the opposing team's goalie was in the net, we'd hurl insults at him with relentless zeal.  When one time the goalie (from St. John's, I think) turned around and gave us the finger after their team scored, he propelled us into a vicious and unrelenting tirade.

When the weather was warmer, early in the season, I'd sometimes wander below the bleachers and collect cans and bottles to return for money.  I can still palpably recall the time someone deliberately and cruelly poured their beer on my head.  But such was the risk I took. The crowds were rowdy and raucous.  When the season wore on from fall to winter, and especially as the play-offs arrived, we'd bundle up and sit on the cold metal bleachers in snow and ice storms to watch our team play.

One of the highlights of my youth was being on a town soccer team, sponsored by Rosal's Restaurant,  that played a 10 minute game on the UConn field at half-time.  It was pouring rain that day and the field was a soaking mess.  We ran around, kicked up mud, and slid all around.  I am sure some of the players were focused on the game, but I wasn't a very good player and was mostly just thrilled to be on the UConn field, highly amused at the vaudevillian falls that we were all taking.  I couldn't have been more elated the next day when the local paper, The Willimantic Chronicle, featured a picture me and a friend, running through the rain.  My glasses are coated in mud and I have the widest smile on my face a boy could have.  I still have that photo somewhere.

When the soccer season ended, it was time for basketball.  In the late 70s and early 80s, the team was coached by Dom Perno, who'd been a player for the Huskies in the 1960s.  I was thrilled to be a friend of his son, Matt, even invited over to the Perno house for dinner one night.  (Embarrassingly, I accidentally got locked in the upstairs bathroom.  Too shy to call for help, it was many minutes before someone came looking for me and helped me unlock the door.)  UConn was one of the founding teams in the Big East, which was a fledgling conference in the early 80s.  The heavyweights were teams like Georgetown, Syracuse, and St. John's (Coached by legends, Thompson, Boeheim, and Carnesseca).  UConn was competitive, but we (notice the inclusive 'we') were not an elite team and certainly didn't have a lot of national recognition.  I can clearly recall going to games at the old UConn Field House, which held just a few thousand fans, at tip off time and finding our regular seats behind the hoop.  Corny Thompson was the star player then.  Fans of that era will also recall names like Vern Giscombe, Chuck Aleksinas, Gerry Besselink, Norm Bailey, Bruce Kuczenski, Earl Kelley, and Karl Hobbs - to name just a few of our beloved Huskies.

Husky Fight Song, Short sound bite

Perno had three 20 win seasons as coach of the Huskies, but was eventually succeeded by Jim Calhoun.  As the mid 80s became the late 80s, UConn recruited the players that would begin our transformation from a New England powerhouse team to a Big East Title contender and an eventual National Champion.  Chris Smith (talk about a crossover move!), Cliff Robinson, Tate George, Scott Burrell were some of the big names of that era.  And no one who grew up in Storrs can forget where they were the day Scotty Burrell threw the ball the length of the court to Tate George to hit the winning shot against Clemson to propel us to the Elite Eight in 1990.  It will forever be known as "The Shot."  (I was on spring break with the UMass Crew Team in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, listening on the radio of my coach's truck.)  It was the shot that would precede stars like Marshalls, Donyell and Donny (no relation), Ray Allen, Kevin OllieRichard HamiltonBen Gordon,  Emeka Okafor.  It would be the shot that precipitated our rivalry with Duke (We hate Duke and we particularly loathe Laettner), and our National Championships in 1999 and 2004.

The other thing is this, growing up in Connecticut, we didn't have much to put us in the national spotlight.  When the NHL Hartford Whalers, rarely a play-off contender, moved to North Carolina it left the Huskies as really the only team to unify the state.  And having a winning team was heaven.  Before Men's Basketball (and much credit must be given to original Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt and the rise of both cable and especially ESPN in the early 80s for our national prominence) if you told someone you were from Storrs, they had no idea what you were talking about.  Even within the state there were many who had no idea where Storrs was.  Today, along with storied programs like UCLA, Duke, and North Carolina, UConn has amongst the most players in the NBA.

Winters can be bleak in Connecticut.  Cold, Gray, Windy.  But inside the Field House, now Gampel Pavillion - the Hartford Civic Center, now the XL Center, it's been hot for a long time now.  Calhoun is a Hall of Fame Coach.  The women's team rivals the men's and now owns 6 National Titles, has won 55 straight games, and regularly thrashes its opponents by double digits.  Even UConn Football has gone big time.  The team has gone from The Yankee Conference to the Big East, from Double 1-AA to Division 1-A.  Old Memorial Stadium on campus is more like a miniature field compared with the new Rentschler Field in East Hartford which can accommodate upwards of 40,000 raving fans.  They've won two bowl games in a row and have several players in the NFL.  Since the UConn Men's Basketball team won the NIT in 1988, UConn's stature in athletics and academics has steadily risen.  We may still be in podunk Storrs, Connecticut, but there are few that follow college athletics that don't know the Huskies.  And having come of age here during those seminal years fills me with the kind of pride that can only truly be understood by those of us who grew up or lived here during that time.  You know who you are.

The UConn men lost last night to Pittsburgh.  They lost to Georgetown last Saturday.  The losses hurt more than I can accurately express.  As go the Huskies, so go I.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Farm

I've had better than a year to think about what I should next do with my life.  I am looking for something bigger than myself.  I don't want a job; I want a passion.  In the last twelve months I, together with my family, have made some significant  and life altering choices toward this end.  We opted out of urban living; we chose to declare bankruptcy; we walked away from the upside down mortgage on our city condo.  We moved to Pomfret, Connecticut in hopes of living a simpler, but admittedly no less easy, life.  And throughout these recent machinations, there's been something massive looming - something inviting, intimidating, and wonderful.  An undertaking of a lifetime.  Something worthy.

In 1707 ancestors of my mother-in-law, Polly, purchased several hundred acres of land in Pomfret. In 1713 it became the Mathewson Farm and later came to be known as Fox Hill Farm.  For generations it served as a homestead and source of livelihood to the Mathewson family and its descendants.  Today, as has been the case for three centuries, a large farmhouse overlooks the property. (The house that's there today is the fifth on the same footprint.  As is the unlucky, but common history of old estates, fires destroyed the previous homes.  The house that stands today was built in 1926.)  As the 1700s became the 1800s, and those the 1900s the property was passed down to family.  Over those years some of the custodians of the land sold off portions or parceled acres off to other family members.  But in its 300 plus years of being passed from one Mathewson generation to the next, a sizable piece of unspoiled acreage remains in the family.

In 1908 a modest summer cottage was built and in the 1960s a small addition to it was construcuted.  The cottage would eventually become the summer home of my wife's grandmother, affectionately called Newie.  Her sisters, Aunt Chan and Aunt Hope, were the last to dwell in the larger, 5,000 square foot farmhouse.  When they passed away in the 1980s, the house sat quietly dormant, only the furniture and the ghosts of Mathewsons past remained.  But in the summer, Newie would return to the cottage and there she'd be visited by her daughter and grandchildren.  Polly, in fact, lived there the summer my wife was born, in 1969.  So while Polly wasn't raised in Pomfret and while my wife never really lived here, it's always been a rich and familiar part of their heritage.

When Newie passed away in 1992, the property became the responsibility of Polly and her brother Chandler. Although his interest in caring for his ancestral homestead never faded, Chandler - 16 years Polly's senior - spent his entire adult life living in the south and chose to remain in South Carolina for his retirement years.  This left Polly and her husband, Nick, who lived in Texas then as the sole remaining custodians.  Sometime in the 1990s, the woman who lived on the property in the cottage and acted as the caretaker fell ill.  Her ne'er do well son, desperate for money to support his drug habit, slowly but steadily stole most of the pieces of antique furniture stored in the Big House, as the farmhouse is called.  When Polly's daughter, Patty, discovered this one weekend when she came up from New York City, it was decided that the property couldn't be tended to from afar.  My in-laws packed up their home in Arlington, Texas into a moving van and moved north.

For the past eleven years, they've worked hard to breathe life into the land.  Even while both holding full time jobs, they managed to renovate the cottage addition into a Bed and Breakfast, Inn at Fox Hill Farm, and have transformed overgrown vegetation into a charming swath of green.  They live next door to the B&B in the old caretaker's cottage.  In the colder months, they fill the wood stove with logs to stay warm in the non-winterized country house.  The Big House is a behemoth that would intimidate the bravest of do-it-yourselfers.  Yet work has been done to prepare it for transformation.  It has been gutted to the studs, stripped of its horse-hair plaster.  It stands quietly and nearly ready for updated electricity and plumbing, new windows, insulation, and sheetrock.

Fox Hill Farm - as it stands today -  consists of 75 acres,  25-30 of which are cleared land.  The rest of the land features a pond, a corn field, a hilly meadow, and dense woods.  The cottage looks much as it did when it was built and the B&B hosts regular guests.  The Big House, though re-roofed in 1999 to preserve it, stands at a crossroads.  It's in need of immediate attention.  The windows and basement are far from weather tight.  It must be sealed (to be renovated sooner or later) or it won't last many more seasons; it's structural integrity hangs in the balance.  There is a mortgage on the property that requires a regular monthly payment. There are property taxes to be paid and the bills that go with the maintenance of such a property.  And there is a legacy to fulfill, a family covenant to keep.

Linda and I moved to Pomfret knowing that as my in-laws age this property will increasingly become the responsibility of Linda and her three siblings.  But those siblings are elsewhere right now - two in Texas and one in New York.  It's we who have chosen to move here now.  It's we who have elected to move our family here sooner rather than later to insert ourselves into its history.  We've been thinking about this property for many years now, knowing that eventually we would bear much responsibility for its care.  The undertaking is this:  how can we help to make sure that Fox Hill Farm, the legacy of the Mathewson family, continues to be a family homestead for Nick and Polly's children?  And for their children?  For my son, Max, and his little cousin, Teo?

In the six years that I've been coming to The Farm, I've fallen for it.  Hard.  I want to live here with my family; I want to grow old here.  I want to watch our family play in its fields, pluck its gardens, and sled its hills.  I want the once proud farmhouse to recapture its former stature.  And I want to be a part of its history.  There's more work to do than I even know, but this is, I've decided, an effort more than worthy of my time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Customer Disservice: Sears Stinks

Like a lot of urban dwellers and city renters, I never had to do much work around the yard.  When we moved here to rural Connecticut this past fall, I knew it wouldn't be long before I would become the owner of gasoline powered yard equipment.  Having next to no experience with lawn mowers, tractors, chain saws, or snow blowers, I was both excited and leery about the process of acquiring them.

There's a local power equipment supply store a few miles up the road and I stopped in one crisp autumn day to talk to the owner about snow blowers.  They carry the Husqvarna brand, a Swedish company, I'm told. There were several sizes of shiny orange plated blowers, with intimidating augers and powerful looking motors. I asked how much they cost.  Naive as I was, I thought $400 to $600 dollars would be the neighborhood.  When I heard $1200, I tried not to blanche, but excused myself shortly thereafter.  Though I knew snow would come and that shoveling our driveways (yes, two) would be back breaking work, I tabled the purchased.  Frankly, I needed time to come to terms with spending that much money on something other than air travel or a vacation (frugality being the better part of valor in my book).

Fall became winter and winter brought snow.  A lot of snow.  At first we shoveled, but when the snow kept coming and our backs revolted we enlisted a friendly plowman to help.  But $38 a snowfall with nothing to show for it at the end of the winter didn't seem like money well invested.  I committed myself to buying a snowblower.  I solicited input from friends and family.  I read copious reviews, paid for a membership, and narrowed the wide field of choices.  I was told not to skimp and buy one with a motor too small for those heavy, wet snows.  Make sure to get a two stage model, said Consumer Reports.  After carefully weighing our needs and our budget, I finally settled upon a Craftsman model from Sears.  Sears!  I am not sure why, but electing to buy from Sears made filled with with some pride.  Sears was an American success story.  Having begun in the late 1800s,  its roots in serving rural farmers with their catalog, it later grew into one of our country's greatest department stores.  There was a certain gratification I felt in continuing an American tradition.

One morning after running some errands I ventured into my local Sears and wandered over to the snow blowers.  There was a sale and several models displayed on the show floor but, alas, not the one that I'd pre-identified.  I lingered in the outdoor equipment area for more than 20 minutes.  Not a single salesperson manned the area.  Not a soul asked me if I needed help.  I left with my money in my pocket (or at least my debit card in my wallet, unswiped).

A few days later, December 22nd to be exact, I found some time to make my purchase online.  In spite of myself, I'd actually worked up some excitement about spending several hundred dollars on a power tool.  I wasn't buying a slick home theater system or a sexy iMac - it was a motorized outdoor tool for clearing the driveway.  I located the model number I wanted, filled in the information on, scheduled my delivery date (Monday, January 4th), and received my confirmation email.  I don't have a pick-up truck, and though I could have borrowed one, it just seemed easier to pay the fee for delivery service.  The total, all in, was $811 (that reflected the $150 discounted price).  And though we had to shovel two more times after placing the order and before the schedule delivery date I took it in stride, knowing that soon I'd have a powerful snow removal tool at the ready in our garage.

On Saturday the 2nd of January, I got an automated call from Sears confirming that I'd be receiving the snow blower the coming Monday and that I'd get another call Sunday to confirm the delivery time window.  Sure enough on Sunday, I received a call telling me that I could expect my snow blower between 11:30am and 1:30pm on Monday.  I had a couple of other appointments that day, but made sure I could be home during that time frame.  But on Monday morning, I got a call from the Sears delivery department telling me that there'd been some problem and the unit wasn't going to be on the truck as expected.  I was told I could expect the delivery on Wednesday instead.  As you might surmise, I was disappointed.  Questions like, "Why would they have told me Sunday that my snow blower was coming between 1130 and 1:30 if there was no snow blower on the truck for me?" arose.  But I am not entirely unreasonable.  I chalked it up to some kind of snafu - after all 'these things happen.'

On Tuesday, I got a call from the Sears delivery department telling me that the snow blower actually wasn't going to be delivered on Wednesday, but rather on Thursday.  There was some confusing explanation offered, a back order, a miscommunication.  I was beginning to get slightly irked at the apparent lack of Sears ability to understand and communicate their own supply chain.  Hadn't I ordered the machine several weeks ago?  Hadn't they allocated a in-stock unit to me?  Hadn't they ascertained where that unit was and when it could be transported from wherever to Pomfret, Connecticut?  Apparently not.  Having been on the other side of the conversation with disenchanted customers, I did my best to not take out my frustrations on the messenger.  Certainly the person calling me wasn't responsible for getting the blower on the truck.  That said, their job is to listen and pass along a customer's concerns.  I hoped they would.

About an hour later, I got another call from Sears. What now?!  They were calling to regret to inform me that the snow blower that I'd carefully researched and committed our scarce funds to was actually not on back order; in fact, that snow blower was no longer available at all!  They recommended that I select another model all together.  In short, they 1) happily took my money 2) promised me a delivery date 3) confirmed that delivery date 4) postponed that delivery date 5) twice! 6) then told me that they weren't going to deliver any snow blower at all.  I was upset, but surely Sears - trusted and honorable Sears - would rise to the occasion and make me glad that despite their error, I'd be glad I'd chosen them over their many competitors.

I spoke on the phone with a customer sales represented, a friendly woman with a folksy accent, who tried to help me find a comparable model.  I politely inquired if, given the many oversights and mistakes Sears had made during the course of this transaction - the first substantial one of this kind I'd made from Sears - they were prepared to sell me a comparable model for the same price.  "No.  I am not authorized to do that," was the reply.  I reminded them that I had a choice where to spend my dollars and that this experience would do much to influence any future purchases.   I'll spare you the back and forth and my efforts to escalate my case to a supervisor.  They didn't so much as offer me a penny off of the other model.  I wasn't asking for them to give away the ranch.  The listed price of the other model - that was nearly identical to the one I'd selected - was all of $100 more.

I am not unreasonable.  I would have gladly met them part way.  All I was really looking for was something more than a "We're sorry for the inconvenience." and "We do appreciate my business."  Sears flat out refused to make any effort to right their wrong and appease their customer.  Here's the kicker.  When I told them that I'd like to cancel my order and take my business elsewhere they told me that I could expect to be credited my purchase amount in 7 to 10 business days!  Let me get this straight?  When I make the purchase, the money is debited that same day from my bank account, but when I want my money back, they tell me it will take nearly two weeks? To save themselves a measly $100, Sears - a company with a market capitalization of 11.46 billion dollars - lost potentially thousands of dollars from me - to say nothing, I hope, of the hundreds of people I might influence to not shop at Sears.  I don't know anything about any of the men in Sears Holdings Senior Management Team, but I am guessing if any one of them knew what transpired here, they wouldn't be so proud to be the legacy of Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My Bad Back

I had a music teacher in middle school - a kindly woman named Mrs. Taylor - who always told me to sit up straight.  "Stop slouching, David!"  She said that if I didn't, I would have a sore back when I got older.  If my back was in good shape today, I might have forgotten Mrs. Taylor long ago, especially given my lack of musical talent.

The first time I can ever really recall being conscious of my back as a body part was when I hurt it in a fall at the age of 14.   This was no ordinary tumble.  I can't recall why we decided to do it, but like much that a teenager does the reason was two-fold:  we had nothing better to do (motive) and we had the latitude to do it (opportunity).

Law & Order sound bite

I was a sophomore in high school and paling around with two older kids, a junior and senior couple, and the junior's freshman sister.  One night when I told my mom we were going to see Body Double at the now defunct College Theater, we instead decided to climb onto the roof of our high school, Edwin O. Smith School.  The night was cloudy and dark; there was little to illuminate our trespass.  If memory serves, it was Preston who knew the way.  We went around the side of the building where an emergency exit formed a good U shaped space between the main building and the math wing.  By using the corner of the building and the window mullions we were able to scale the 14 feet to the vast black tarred roof.  There was nothing to do up there, no mischief in which to engage, but the illicit nature of the act alone was exhilarating.  The four of us ventured out in separate directions to explore, each of us given to our own migratory predilections.

I walked atop the inky expanse and looked out from my lofty vantage at the front of the school, the movie theater across the street, and the UConn campus in the distance.  Temporarily entranced by the blackness of the roof and sky and the stillness of the night, I failed to perceive that the roof upon which I strode was nearing its end.  I walked on; my left foot landed firmly on the roof, but my right foot failed to find any surface whatsoever.  I literally walked right off the roof.  It happened so fast - and so long ago - that I can't say exactly what I felt when my consciousness absorbed the fact that I was falling off the roof of my school.  I know this:  as my right foot strode off the roof, my body twisted as I fell.  I dropped the dozen or so feet quickly like a stone and landed squarely on my back upon the firm autumn grass - my head mere inches from the asphalt foundation that ran along the base perimeter of the building.  I couldn't breathe, but I didn't know why.  Was I dying?  I must have made some sound of distress as I fell because it wasn't long before Preston made his way down the same way we'd climbed up, ran alongside the opposite side of the math wing and up the other side to where I lay supine and motionless.

Preston and I ascertained that I'd simply knocked the wind out of me (all of it!), but other than a sore foot, I seemed okay - no blood and no broken bones as far as we could tell.  Ashley and Nanny came upon us soon after.  Preston and I were so grateful and astounded that I seemed to be relatively uninjured that by the time the girls arrived, he and I were nearly laughing with relief.  The girls took this as a sign that we'd staged the whole event and Nanny pushed me to the ground in anger for having scared her so.  We soon convinced her that, no, it was as it appeared, I simply walked off the roof.

My back was sore for several weeks, but after that, the pain subsided.  My mother was none the wiser and I had a good story to share.  I'm not Irish, but I sure was lucky.  I thought that would be the last I heard of my back; I didn't give much thought to it for the next three years.  By then I was a freshman oarsman on the UMass Crew Club's Novice Team.  I was a burgeoning 18 year-old athlete, but not having played competitive sports before, my body had as yet little preparation for the stress I'd be applying to my slight frame and weak spine.  Core strength was not yet in vogue; sit-ups - poorly performed sit-ups - and back extensions were the entire scope of my abdominal and spinal training.  The toll of an infirm upper body trying to keep pace with my comparatively stronger legs eventually caught up to my lower back.  That winter I felt an especially acute ache and strain that wasn't dissipating.  I eventually sought treatment at UMass Health Services and was referred to physical therapy where I received ultrasound treatment, electric stimulation therapy, and massage (treatments I'd receive scores of times in the years ahead).  When my back felt somewhat better the treatments ended. I was given stretches and strengthening exercises to do and was prescribed a specific position in which to sleep (basically fetal on my side with a pillow between my knees).

As my crew career proceeded I had occasional bouts of pain in my lower back - some more severe than others.  There were several times I was forced to sit out practice for days or weeks - especially over the winters when our workouts focused more on weight training.  But season by season, I prevailed.  I learned to cope with a base level of pain - it became normal for me.  It just was.  After college - especially during the numerous spans of time when I was less active, my back would flair up and occasionally leave me laid up.  Sitting in almost any chair for more than twenty minutes proved a challenge.  I took Tylenol and ibuprofen, lots and lots of ibuprofen; I learned more exercises and stretches.  Inevitably though when my back felt better I'd forego my 'supermans' and leg lifts.  And just as inevitably I'd re-injure my back.   Over the years, I've seen chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists.  I've done yoga, pilates, and swum countless laps in the pool.  Like a comet with an unpredictable, but certain orbit, severe back pain comes and goes.  All the while though there is a residual pain that's nearly constant.

In late October, early November of 2000 I went on a long journey.  I was living in Amsterdam and flew to Malta for a week long meeting - which was also a week full of late nights and little sleep.  From there I flew- coach - from Malta to London and from London to San Francisco for the wedding of a high school friend.  After the weeks of late nights, little sleep, and long, uncomfortable travel, I sought refuge at my father's duplex unit in Marin County.  I arrived just a day or two before the historic 2000 Presidential Election between Gore and Dubya.  I stayed awake as late as I could that night, drifting to sleep to Tim Russert's famous, "Florida, Florida, Florida" refrain.  When I awoke the next day, still unsure as to who our President-elect was, I tried to rise from my makeshift couch cushion bed.  Immediately I froze in the sharpest, most debilitating back pain I'd ever experienced.  The pain was paralyzing.  I couldn't shift into any position without searing agony.  I spent the rest of my paternal visit supine.  I mustered all my strength and courage, to say nothing of the hundreds of milligrams of ibuprofen coursing through my body, to board a flight home.  The pain acted like a clarion call: Take care of your back!  And I did.  For a time.

The thing about a tricky back is that when it's fine it has a way of lulling you into complacency.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  I knew this:  when I was exercising regularly, my back felt better and hurt less.  Marrying a physical therapist helped, too.  (Though when I took her advice some years back and saw a back expert, had x-rays and an MRI taken, I was deeply saddened to hear the pronouncement that I had the back of a man twenty years my senior.)  The long and the short of it is that I have arthritis far more advanced than a man my age ought to - degenerative joint disease (DJD), also known as Osteoarthritis in my spine - commonly known as a bad back.  I was struck just now reading this from the DJD Wikipedia link: "it commonly arises from trauma."  Perhaps I wasn't as lucky as I thought with that school roof fall after all?

Lately and up until recently my back had been feeling great.  I've been running a lot, even finished a marathon this past fall.  Pain that used to be referred from my back down the front of my legs was a sensation from long ago.  But as sure as Halley's Comet returns, just days before this past Christmas, I was bending over and turning slightly when I felt The Twinge.  I didn't realize at that moment how badly I'd tweaked it, only that I had. For two days I managed with stiffness and general discomfort, but by Christmas Eve, I was an invalid, confined to my bed, barely able to move, let alone attend family festivities.  On Christmas morning, I drove myself to the doctor while my family waited to open presents.  Max got a toy truck; Linda got theater tickets; I got a shot of Toradol, two doses of Amrix, and a prescription for Vicodin.

I am feeling better, finally able to sit at the computer for more than a few minutes.  In a few more days I'll start running again.  I am sure that I'll do some core strengthening work.  In a month I'll scarcely remember how bad it was (my brain is funny like that).  I'll have that low level pain that's always there, my life long and less than amiable companion.  Long car rides will always be tough and as I age, it's not likely to improve.  I don't share this to engender sympathy.  If you don't have a bad back you either will or will have some other cross to bear.  I share it because whether it's a back, a disease, trauma - emotional or otherwise, we all have something to endure.  And if you don't, sure as shit you will.  How you choose to process your pain is what distinguishes suffering from perseverance.

My bad back is my ever present shadow.  We met that fateful autumn night some 26 years ago when I walked off that roof and we've been quite close ever since. Though not always visible to the casual observer, my bad back is as much a part of my identity as my gangly height and my goofy sense of humor.  Sentimentality aside, I'd gladly pay you Tuesday for a healthy back today.