Review: In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

The integration of the internet into day-to-day and now moment-to-moment life continually narrows the distinction between still relatively abstract actions mediated by the network and those taken apart from it. Stories told since the popularization of the internet, especially those about young people, often include an element of moral panic, a concern that the new facet of modern life will somehow damage or corrupt the innocent and impressionable. In In Real Life, Cory Doctorow spins a compelling tale of ethical reasoning and moral awakening out of several popular bogeymen of the past generation: Stranger Danger! Video Games! The Internet! (No drugs, though).

His protagonist, Anda, is an authentically drawn girl gamer (MMO & tabletop) and budding coder, invited to audition for an all-female guild in a popular MMORPG. Recognizing her skill in the game, an elder guild member invites her to turn that ability into cash by disrupting the activities of other players who sell their in-game loot for hard currency. In doing so, Anda’s eyes are opened to the realities of the much different role the game she plays holds for people her age in other places as she at first clumsily, and then more humbly, tries to help them in a material way.

Doctorow manages to work in a realistic way with the obstacles and resources available to an attentively-parented teen exploring the world of online gaming for the first time, including justifying it to her mother by way of persuading her to advance the first month’s subscription, as well as allaying her fears regarding perceived risks. While told in an economical pace, he still manages to slip in an interesting inversion of stereotype, in which the traditional outsiders that are Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts themselves constitute an in-group dismissive of interest from more mainstream outsiders.

Jen Wang’s linework is expressive and effective in-game and out, providing a diverse cast with a broad array of telling detail, but not to the point of realism. Instead, a humanistic freehand style leaves even architectural detail with a warm unevenness. Where many other tales split between two “worlds” adopt the Wizard of Oz-esque convention of using a brighter color palette for the less quotidian one, Wang’s colors, suggestive of watercolors, do not change radically from one setting to the other. Instead, her panel layouts play the part of graphic differentiator, becoming more dynamic and less constrained by panel boundaries when Anda is in the game.

While the up-front novelty of In Real Life is its take on the global economies built upon MMORPGs, its message is more deeply rooted in the idea that actions should be based upon a firm understanding of the situation and informed by compassion. Even when such actions take place across a global computer network, they are fully a part of real life.

Christmas 2011

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A typical holiday afternoon at Stonebench.

Friends & Family, Thither & Yon,

The world appears to spin faster and faster about the sun, each year briefer than the last, events separated by what once would have been long intervals now practically on top of one another. Reviewing our lives in 2011 reveals an astonishing wealth of life which has taken place in what feels like the blink of an eye. Thank you all for sharing in our joys and our miseries, whether in person, by voice, or by text; the encouragement and inspiration we receive from family and friends is truly beyond value.

Emerging from the winter doldrums in March, we revisited a favorite getaway for a quick Spring Break recharge before Christina plunged back into the classroom. On this visit to Fredericksburg, we stayed in a peculiar lodging known as the 6666 Pullman Bed and Breakfast, a private Pullman car once used by Teddy Roosevelt. A train nut since early childhood, and a fan of TR since Bugs Bunny wielded a big stick while wearing a fake mustache and pince-nez, Russell could scarcely have been happier if he got Christina to scale Enchanted Rock. Which he did, slowly but surely, on a gloriously brisk and overcast morning.

April marked the one-year anniversary of Russell’s daily bike ride to and from work, a slow, ongoing trek which should reach it’s thousandth mile sometime in early 2012. In addition to a much-needed workout, cycle commuting has also provided him an opportunity to exercise his narrative voice, racking up two wins in a weekly essay contest on a local cycling blog. The prizes were, naturally, re-invested in safety gear.

In late May, Russell’s maternal grandfather, Papa, passed away unexpectedly. It was a devastating loss for the family, an absence keenly felt in this season. Russell was called to bend his writing style to the task of memorializing the man who inspired and encouraged him in so many areas, from their shared love of reading and speaking to cooking and baking. His unconventional narrative obituary ran in the local weekly, but was initially rejected because of its unusual style by Papa’s hometown newspaper.

In the midst of record-breaking summer heat in Austin, the air conditioning system in our heretofore reliable Suzuki gave up. Once repaired, it cooled us down nicely, but presaged a cascade of system failures which finally resulted in a hunt for a new car. After a few test drives, much deliberation about features, and a search for the right configuration, our new silver Kia Soul is cozily resting its wheels in our garage.

As December began, Christina’s semester at the University of Texas’ School of Information Science came to a close with her poster presentation on the role of graphic novels in the classroom and in the library. Capping off a year of three complete courses, Christina is steeling herself (while Russell, Soot, and Smoke steel their respective selves) for the coming Spring semester, when she will take on a two class workload in preparation for a Summer practicum to finish her degree.

This Christmas finds Stonebench silhouetted with festive lights for the first time, and the kitchen in a near-constant state of production of sweet treats for gifting and bringing to celebrations, including our forthcoming Christmas Day with the Taylors in Buda. While Canadians enjoy their annual celebration of fisticuffs, we will be on our way to spend the last week of 2011 with the Streeters in Plano, ringing in 2012 with the western swing of A Ride With Bob. However you celebrate, we wish you safety, health, and happiness.

And of course,
a Very Merry Christmas,
and a Happy New Year!

Big WTF Candy Mountain

A favorite since I was introduced to it, strangely enough, in bowdlerized form in the Rankin-Bass classic The Easter Bunny is Comin’ To Town, Big Rock Candy Mountain (in its non-bowdlerized form) has popped up twice in recent days on my various music-shuffling devices. The all-knowing oracle tells me that it’s a modern Cockaigne song, a tale of a mythical land of improbable liberty and plenty. A fun tune, despite it’s somewhat troubling views of paradise, including jails made of tin, from which you can walk right out of as soon as you’re in. The crime rate in Big Rock Candy Mountain is likely astronomical. Nonetheless, I can see how it’d be appealing to early 20th-century transient rail enthusiasts, i.e, hobos. Apart from shotguns, what else do hobos want?

A land that’s fair and bright. Everyone wants this. See, hobos are people too!

Handouts that grow on bushes.

To sleep out every night.

Empty boxcars.

For the sun to shine every day.

Cigarette trees.

Lemonade springs.

For all the cops to have wooden legs. Nevermind, hobos are cruel, cruel beasts.

For the bulldogs all to have rubber teeth.

For hens to lay soft-boiled eggs.

For the farmers’ trees to be full of fruit. See, they support the family farmer; maybe a hobo could get elected president one day!

Barns full of hay.

No snow.

No rain.

No wind.

To never change their socks. We’ll come back to this one.

Little streams of alcohol trickling down the rocks.

For the brakemen to have to tip their hats.

For the railway bulls to be blind.

A lake of stew, and one of whiskey too, in which one can paddle all around in a big canoe. Right with ya up until that last bit.

Jails made of tin, from which you can walk right out again as soon as you are in. Note that they’re fine with being
arrested and processed and incarcerated, so long as they can Kool-Aid man out of the jailhouse wall once they’re in a cell.

No short-handled shovels, axes, saws or picks

To sleep all day.

To hang the jerk that invented work.

All in all, not the craziest list of demands I’ve ever heard. Given the challenges of the lifestyle and the meager comforts available, I can sympathize with almost all of these hobo dreams. Except the sock thing. It nearly ruins the song for me, really, because I can’t for the life of me figure out how not changing one’s socks would be of either material of emotional benefit to anyone. I’m not some sock-changing fanatic, either; in a pinch, I’ll slip on a previously worn pair. But consider: long days, or even weeks holed up in a boxcar, or worse, on foot, trekking from hostile town to hostile town with aggressive vagrancy laws, scrounging for sustenance, contending with your own funk and that of fellow-travelers all the while. Why, for the love of all that’s fluffy and cottony, wouldn’t you want to change your socks? And how, given the manifold dangers and deprivations faced by hobos, does this bizarre desire rate high enough to make it into the song?

I must say that I’m stumped. I welcome any theories or speculation you may have to cast light upon this lyrical hosiery mystery.

Papa

The night he passed after a sudden decline in health, my mother asked that I handle my grandfather’s obituary. She specified that it should be something out of the ordinary for printing in a handout at the funeral, with a shorter version for publication in the local news and in his hometown paper. Alas, the journalistic establishment of Scranton PA would not see fit to run anything not in “news format.” The internet, though, notoriously lacks editorial standards. Thanks to my editors, who in other guises are my lovely wife and my dear mother; my brother, whose media production skills are frighteningly good; and of course, the man whose recipes I still follow in and out of the kitchen.

The Rev. Lt. Col. Carmen Frank Riviello, Sr. (ret., U.S.A.N.C.), last stood about 5′’3″” on his size 8 ½ feet. The buffeting winds of age and care had eroded a full three inches from his height, but not an atom from his wit.

As a boy in the Lackawanna coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania, he walked the train tracks, collecting lumps of anthracite fallen from the cargo of passing trains which carried the black nuggets his father helped mine from the Paleozoic seams to the furnaces of the pre-rust Steel Belt. Each lump was added to his sack until he returned home to add it to the coal cellar to supplement the family’s supply for the stove.

In the same way, he trod the path of life, collecting the memories that make up a lifetime until it came time to shrug off his burden at 15:00 25 May 2011, a week and half before the 80th celebration of his birth on 4 June 1931. And this is what is left: a deep and dense trove of memories, left for us all to mine and add to our own collections, to help keep us warm through the rest of our days. The last, freshly-hewn nugget of memory he collected was surely one of kisses and hugs, prayers and whispered worries, and of tender touches amidst the joyful noise of his family enjoying each others’ company even in that grim moment. The conversation and tempered laughter halted as his labored breath did.

Below it lay a thousand craggy memories of sad days watching his precious wife Nancy’s slow decline, punctuated by joy, amusement and pride of days spent with his Great-grandson Gavin. A reach below the surface brings up a day of his retirement vocation, meeting the spiritual needs of others at the First Baptist Church of Schertz and Brooke Army Medical Center, then visiting with his close neighbor Robert “Woody” Woodfork. Another has him sharing his faith from the high plains of Floydada, Texas to the sea coast of New Symerna Beach, Florida, and another still preaching the gospel as an associate pastor at Hays Hills Baptist Church in Buda, Texas. Deeper yet, there are memories of his days treating college students at Southwest Texas State University.

The birth of his youngest grandchild, now a newly-minted marketer, Shana, his Contessa, is not much deeper down, nor is that of his Pinecone ― Gavin’s mother ― vocational nursing student Rochelle. The skilled and inquisitive Sean, whom he nicknamed Snag, was born on his birthday in 1983. University of Houston business student Thomas, or Big Tom, arrived only a few months earlier. University of Texas Mathematician Clare, his Princess, came along in 1981. The adventurous Christine, who is truly Rotten was his first granddaughter. Russell, whose subscription to National Geographic started before he was born, answered to George, and made him a grandfather they would all call Papa.

Almost halfway down, there is a memory of his first career, before his retirement from the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, El Paso. In one of the final moves of his globetrotting service to his fellow citizens, he moved his family from his previous post in Augsburg, Germany, to Fort Dix, New Jersey where he put to use his skill for healing, this time cooling the fever of racial strife which plagued the Army in those tense times. A little deeper and a world away, his tour of duty in Vietnam is a heavy and dark lump of time away from his family, a burden which he was nonetheless proud to carry.

That family was made complete only inches further down, when his youngest daughter Corrine was born while he was stationed in Hawaii, just weeks before it became the fiftieth state and a few months after the death of his beloved mother Ida. Another level holds the arrival of his first daughter, Pontia, while at Fort Ord, California. Down below the memory of his third entry into the Korea-era Army as a Second Lieutenant, and under his second drafting as a corpsman, is a memory made in his time as a civilian, the day he became a father with the birth of Carmen, Jr. In the same era, across the nation, were born those who his children would marry, and who he would hold in his heart as dear as they: Russell, Kathleen and Beverly.

Sitting next to each other only a quarter of the way from the bottom are memories from a momentous month in his young life. The worn and treasured recollection of his wedding day, when his love for Nancy Jeanne was solemnized into a bond which spanned the Earth and 57 happy years to be parted only by nature, sits cheek-by-jowl with the memory of the day not two weeks later when his country first called him to serve.

The loss of his father Francisco when Carmen was 13 is a stone far too deep by any measure, but as the youngest of nine siblings, he was not without others to show him the way, and to keep him on it. The pattern of this foundational gravel of childhood nearly fuses into a mosaic of life as a child of immigrants, comprising memories of his differences, memories of the high expectations that come with being born in the Land of the Free, memories which he was sure to pass on to each of his descendants. Deep in this matrix of days and routines is a small cabochon, told and retold, of a walk down the tracks, which is picked out, and dusted off, and made into something new.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Antioch Church Building fund or the Hays Hills Baptist Church Youth Group, for which Carmen and Nancy provided seed funding. Donations for either may be sent in care of Hays Hills Baptist Church, 1401 N. FM 1626, Buda TX 78610, or call (512) 295-3132.

Meet the Heat

I entered this post in the My Ride Writing Contest at Austin on Two Wheels, and was named the winning entry for Week 9.

When I discuss my commute, the first two questions are invariably “How far do you ride?” to which I respond “One-point-six miles each way, if Google is to be believed,”  and “Do you ride during the summer, too?” Last year, my answer was “As long as I can bear it.” As it turned out, I managed to pedal my heat-averse, AC-lovin’ self home from work all through last summer. This year the answer is “Yep, and it’s not so bad as you’d think!”

Sunk into the earth about as deep as my chest, a small parking garage is where my ride home from work begins. The access ramp at its rear provides a fun end to my morning ride as well as a sprightly start to the homeward trek. When I’m reasonably certain that nobody’s about to pull out anywhere between the bike rack and the exit, I sprint from the front of the garage to the ramp, suddenly popping up onto the quiet lane like a penguin onto an ice floe. The hot August air instantly envelops me, an electric blanket left on too long, which I immediately fling off with a few standing strokes, catching the green light up and out of the depression in which my office sits, and across the four lanes of Burnet Rd. The line of cars on the far side of the intersection yields several drivers who take note of the large white and yellow clad rider who they blame for costing them a few climate-controlled and musically-enhanced seconds while the left-turning commuters at the head of the line politely awaited my crossing.

Coasting to a stop, then hanging a left, I hear something wholly unexpected. In the summer, in a car, in Texas, the windows stay up. Precious coolness must be preserved to keep the wicked sun at bay, and the steel and glass form a bulwark against such loss. They also block out the street scene, which can be a good thing when avoiding the panhandler at the stoplight , but also prevents entertaining chance encounters. The fellow on the bus stop bench is calling to me,”Hey, do you know what time it is?” I let up on my pedals, taken back a bit, unused to be being conversed with from the sidewalk while using the road. “A quarter of six,” I call back as I ride away.

A bicycle operator is more tightly integrated with the sneaker operators than an automobile operator is. Pedestrians rarely address drivers or passengers, as that is an invasion of their enclosed space, rudely interrupting the activities in those small (and not so small) homes on wheels. A conversation between sidewalk and motorcar must be brief, as the car must be on its way, lest it block traffic with its size, and requires the rider or driver (who is on the side farthest from the sidewalk, and therefore even harder to address) to make the affirmative act of opening a window to speak and hear clearly. The bicycle is, of course, slower, so it need not come to a halt to exchange words; and if it did, it’s small enough for others  to navigate around, or even to be taken off the road entirely for a moment. The cyclist’s ears are not impeded by glass or great distance from a pedestrian’s voice, making casual speech much easier, and so more likely to occur.

Soon, the first great challenge of my homeward commute rose before me. I gathered speed and rushed down into the creekbottom, pausing once to absorb the shock of the cement seam on the small bridge, then pedaling furiously before pausing a second time to absorb the shock of scarred and broken pavement before the train tracks, followed swiftly by the tracks themselves, and then the rough patch beyond them. I had bled a good deal of speed at that point, but presently faced an incline up a hill that feels steep even in a car. I don’t get far in third, falling back to second gear while I glance in my rear-view mirror to see one car, then another slow for the tracks, then begin to climb up behind me. One by one, they pass me; some calmly, some with a roar of acceleration meant to make up for time lost looking at my butt and blinking red taillight. I reach the top of Mt Crumpit (not its real name) moving at a crawl. I have several dozen yards to recover before the next hill.

I’ve lived in this area on and off for the better part of the last decade. When I moved into my first post-college apartment on Stonehollow Dr, there was an old sign near the intersection of Gracy Farms Ln and the MoPac frontage road for a development that never got off the ground called Hobby Horse Estates. I ride on the very brief Hobby Horse Ct twice a day; since Mangia and Tacodeli now occupy the site of the old sign, this street is now the only remnant of that ‘80s real estate plan gone bust.

About halfway between the crest of Mt Crumpit and Stonehollow Dr is another old sign, this one affixed to a stout but stunted oak. NO DUMPING reads the rusting plank of steel, which goes on to threaten a fine. The funny thing is that it sits in the fenced-in corner of a regularly mowed lawn of a corporate campus, which seems an unlikely place for someone to decide to discard a broken washing machine. It’s a trace of the past, generally invisible to motorized commuters, from when the Gracys’ farm was not so distant a memory and Gracy Farms Ln was host to far fewer sari-clad Indian ladies taking evening strolls.

Each day coming home, I make a choice, and almost every time, I choose the same. Rather than power up a second steep incline to Metric Blvd, I take a somewhat longer, but more gently sloped route along Stonehollow’s southern half, enjoying the near-total solitude that comes from slowly pedaling through a quiet business park. By far the most difficult part of my daily ride, even in 95-degree heat my gradual ascent still provides enough breeze to keep me cool and focused on the road and the slowly building burn in my calves and thighs. At the top of that long hill, I speed up a bit, but soon come to rest at my favorite stop sign while traffic roars by.

After what seems like forever, I find a gap in traffic, and after a pause in the median pass-through, I cruise up the Metric Blvd bike lane and into my neighborhood. I dismount in my driveway and unbuckle my helmet. It’s only now, without my self-generated near-constant dry breeze, that I feel a trickle of sweat in the fading heat of the scorching day. There’s just enough time for a refreshing shower before dinner.

On a Misty Morning

I entered this post in the My Ride Writing Contest at Austin on Two Wheels, and was named the winning entry for Week 6.

Four out of five weekdays, I stir myself from bed and tidily fold up my work clothes in my bike bag. Instead of donning the dress-code conforming shirt and khakis, I instead slip into a loose sweat-wicking t-shirt and shorts. No spandex for me, though; that’s a privilege, not a right, and one my chunky behind has yet to earn.

The morning is misty, not too warm, but the warmest yet this year. I greet Syphy (short for Sisyphus, as their tasks are much alike), my grey two-wheeled steed, as I wheel him out of the backyard shed and check on the tires’ pressure. I close the shed and then the gate before I step onto the driveway to don my helmet and switch on my blinkenlights. Pausing a moment after I throw my leg over the seat to listen to the stillness of the neighborhood against the muted roar of traffic on nearby Metric Blvd, I can hear the urgent blast of the Red Line’s horn. I know that if I hear it now, I’ll most likely beat it to the crossing at Gracy Farms Ln.

I coast down the drive, then pedal into second gear. Approaching Metric, I can hear the sizzling of water vapor on the high voltage lines overhead, harmless but curiously unsettling. The bike lane on the boulevard is of comfortable width, but studded with the most random of obstacles: a sippy cup, a box cutter, a dead grackle, a disrespectful squirrel. In the top of my three gears, I glance in my mirror, then look back to find smooth sailing as I glide across the main lanes to the left turn.

It’s been almost a year now, and what once seemed terrifying – riding on the road, changing lanes, climbing hills – is now merely my way to work and back. The awkward perambulations I once used to avoid such tasks are gone. I no longer cruise the sidewalk, no longer turn right to go left, no longer walk or bus my way up a hill.

I turn wide and take the right lane for myself, and the cars behind me politely pass in the left lane, as they should. The next light is green, and then I’m at the top of an unnamed hill I’ve dubbed Mt Crumpet because last summer it made me feel like Max, the Grinch’s sleigh-pulling dog, as I struggled to conquer it every afternoon. I slowly tip over into the gravity well from which I’ll have to climb on my way home and rush toward the tracks at the base of Mt Crumpet. In deference to the residents of the trackside condominiums, Capital Metro has silenced its train whistles as they approach this intersection. Therefore, there is no warning that a load of commuters is on its way to downtown or Cedar Park until the bells, lights and guard arms start going. I stand on my pedals , rumbling across the tracks at full speed even as the car next to me slows to a crawl to save suspension wear. Just as we both begin to climb the slight rise on the far side of the tracks, the familiar ding-ding-ding starts up, and I see the red flashing lights in my mirror. It’s a little exhilarating, really, although I know the train is still several seconds away. The car passes me, and I change lanes to turn left again.

The habits picked up over a year in the saddle have not all been great ones. I do look before each lane change and turn, and I honor stop lights religiously. However, the octagonal momentum thief and I have a love-hate relationship. I love it when it appears at the end of the long, slow incline that I tackle after surmounting Mt Crumpet each day, allowing me to catch my breath and rest my legs for a moment before crossing a busy intersection. I hate it when it nags me to halt when no other vehicle is anywhere in sight or earshot. I have, therefore, taken to ignoring them except in the presence of oncoming traffic, and only grudgingly slowing to a crawl at most other times. Only when confronted with multiple cars do I come to a complete stop and touch the ground with my foot.

I modulate my speed so that the few cars coming down the road have passed by the time I reach the stop sign, and I glide on through and up the rise, pulling a slower but similar trick with the next sign before pedaling up to the light at Burnet Rd. I encourage the few commuters on the two-lane street to pass me, so as to more readily trigger the sensor loops at the intersection. Soon, it’s green, and I go up and over the crown of the road, then down into the parking garage where my u-lock and cable await on the bike rack. Nine hours to rest the body and work the mind before I do it all in reverse.

Cartophiliac

If there’s a verb I enjoy most, it might be poring. Not pouring, mind you, although I do that often, too, but rather the act of detailed examination of every aspect of something. Oftentimes, this leads me down the ol’ Wikipedia Rabbit Hole. Other times, I get to pore over a map. Our home is adorned with maps, detailed reproductions of old cartography in foreign languages, which, in idle moments away from the hive-mind computer, I can sidle up to and see what that long-ago mapmaker thought was the most accurate representation of a given patch of the Earth’s surface. It’s a snapshot of the evolution of knowledge; a comically pinched Big Bend, a gulf spanning from San Francisco to Saskatchewan, or a homeland for people with faces embedded in their torsos.

Maps are, like most made things, a way of seeing the world as someone else sees it, but with conventions and degrees of freedom in the exploration of that vision different from others. Unlike words, relationships between points, if not their intended meaning, can be understood without language skills. Unlike narratives, be they spoken, graphical or textual, maps are nonlinear, each point randomly accessible and independently informative without having seen any other point on the map, and yet inextricably tied to the points around it in order to give context to their significance. Unlike the visual arts, their relationship to what they represent or express is explicit and quantifiable. I find this combination of traits highly alluring, perhaps in part because my often brief attention span is well-suited to something that can be absorbed in bite-size chunks, and no doubt due to my abiding preference for nonfiction and expression rooted in the recognizable world over fiction and the abstract.

A Gentle Winter’s Rant

Kids are taught that the seasonal cycle begins with Spring, but each year is born into Winter.

I’ve never been a big fan of January. Or the bulk of February, for that matter. The brilliance of December’s holidays makes even the few bright and sunny days seem dull by comparison, and the predominant cold and nasty days all the worse. Even the few causes for celebration seem perfunctory. MLK Jr Day and Presidents’ Day net us (maybe) a day off plus the sad sight of retailers trying to make relatively solemn occasions into reasons to shop. Mostly, they afford opportunities to get errands done or see the sort of film studios release in January – Oscar bait (not generally cheery) or predestined flops (sad in a different way). Valentine’s can lift the spirit, if executed properly, but for too many has become an occasion of either obligation or chagrin. The pall lifts, for me anyhow, with my birthday at the end of February, which is followed closely on by Spring Break, now again an occasion for mirth since I re-connected to academia through Christina. Still, for however blah these weeks may be, they at least stave off the inevitable optisinularyngological assault that Spring’s vegetative orgy brings.

Christmas 2010

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At Grand Boulé, Dallas TX, Summer 2010.

To Those We are Thankful To and Thankful For,

The interludes of 2010 have been few and fortunate. Their scarcity speaks both to life’s pace as well as its demands. Just as we confronted the limits of our endurance and talent, along came a respite sufficient to prepare us for another round.

Our year began with a humbling and perplexing encounter with an unsavory element as Stonebench was breached and looted in a daytime robbery just minutes after our departure for work. While we found ourselves involuntarily relieved of electronics, tools and heirloom jewelry, the first priority was to locate the cats. Clever Smoke hid in the shower; agile Soot escaped under the deck, returning when his belly grumbled; and Audrey, a stray we were holding for her owner, was deposited in the coat closet by the thieving (but evidently not inhuman) intruders. Apart from a necklace valued high in sentiment but low in dollars, all has been repaired and replaced. Electronic eyes now keep watch when we leave, and digital ears hear the cats play in our absence.

The recovery from the robbery and the sprint which kicked off the beginning of the spring semester for Christina both at Westwood and at UT was punctuated by a brief reprieve in Greune at the Kuebler Waldrip Haus, a weekend of Hill Country relaxation which fueled the push to the end of both her school years. A visit to Natural Bridge Caverns, the first in years for Russell and the first ever for Christina, inspired him to finally organize and scan the many photos socked away from grade school field trips, some of which found their way on to Facebook.

After almost half a year of excuses and delays, Russell finally announced, and then made good on, a date to begin commuting to work by bicycle. Since April 19, he has, with few exceptions, mounted up each morning, Monday through Thursday, and proceeded to cycle to work and back home again. Undeterred by the heat of Summer, the occasional afternoon shower, and now the chill of Autumn, he rides whenever the morning commute is above 40°F and not precipitating.

Throughout the year, Christina kept her nose to the grindstone in dogged pursuit of her master’s degree in Library & Information Science. By the time you read this, she will have completed a quartet of courses in 2010, enduring papers, readings, presentations, and group work with teammates both wonderful and challenging. The coming year presents challenges greater still, as the credits remaining to complete her course of study are becoming ever more difficult to fit into a tight schedule.

Despite taking classes spanning almost the whole of Summer, Christina did get to attend the biennial Grand Boulé of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, held this year in Dallas. Christina got to dress up nightly for events featuring the likes of Spindarella and Montell Jordan while Russell got to lounge away several days taking advantage of the amenities at the Hilton Anatole.

In order to create space in our home office and provide a more comfortable night’s sleep for guests, Russell took another crack at cabinetmaking, this time resulting in a Murphy bed. It may be too good an outcome, though, as it is altogether too tempting to fold it down for a nap in the midst of getting work done.

Halfway through the fall semester, we took a week-long break to celebrate the nuptials of Russell’s cousin, Rochelle, and her groom, Aaron. Why a week? That’s how long it took the Carnival Conquest to sail from Galveston out to Montego Bay, Jamaica and then return via Grand Cayman and Cozumel. There were several smallish adventures, many large meals and several books read along the way.

This Christmas, Amtrak permitting, will find us celebrating in Plano with the Streeters. Back in Austin to greet 2011, we’ll rock the night away with friends at the CAKE New Year’s Eve Spectacular. Wherever you are and whatever you have planned this holiday season, we wish you safety, health, and happiness.

And of course,
a Very Merry Christmas,
and a Happy New Year!

Audrey, Too

It was a little before Thanksgiving when Christina first glimpsed a new shape moving outside of the back door. Cats had been using our backyard as, variously, a refuge from canines, a litterbox and, (we feared) a nursery, for quite a while, with no let-up when we moved in, so such skittering blurs in the backyard were not unusual. On the weekend following the feast, in my capacity as webmaster for our neighborhood association, I posted a description of a lost cat named Audrey in the Missing Pets blog, complete with a link to a page the owner had made with photos of the missing kitty.
Weeks passed, and the backyard visitor became a fixture, playing with Soot and Smoke through the window in the door, and eventually mewing whenever it saw a light on inside. Getting a better look at the feline vagrant, I realized I had seen that face before. It was none other than Audrey. I had until this point resisted Christina’s suggestions about putting out food, as I didn’t want the cat to become attached to us, or vice-versa. Now that we knew she had an owner, that possibility seemed remote, so I set out a tupperware bowl bearing a few handfuls of our own overfed critters’ chow.
We set about contacting the owner. First by strolling down to his house, just a few doors down from ours, then by email and phone. No response. To make matters worse, we couldn’t actually claim to have Audrey in hand, as she scampered under the deck whenever the door opened. We tried cutting off handouts, in the hope that she would go exploring for other meal opportunities and find her way home. Nothing seemed to work.
The weather turned a few days after Christmas; winter had begun in earnest. We didn’t see Audrey for over a week, and were uncertain whether to be happy for her moving on, perhaps back home, or distressed that her absence coincided with the cold snap. On January 3, she returned. Desperately mewing in the chill wind, she was visibly gaunt. A childhood spent rooting for the coyote in Roadrunner cartoons provided the kernel of a plan.
I bundled myself up and closed off the office from the rest of the house armed only with a small bowl of catfood. Opening the door from the office to the deck, I put a few morsels on the planking, followed by several more on the threshold, and left the door slightly ajar. Drawn by the light and noise, Audrey incautiously devoured the first clump of food, and quickly thereafter caught the scent of the second. Throwing the door wide, I lunged at the pitiful puss; however, my less than cat-like stealth and speed paled next to her actual-cat agility as she darted out of range and into the shadows. As hungry as she was, I wagered that she would return despite the scary man in the sweatpants. Another small mound of food on the deck, followed by another few bits on the threshold, but this time with the door open about a hand’s width with a Pac-Man-like trail dribbled well into the room greeted Audrey when she slunk back into view. Peering out the window behind the door, I watched as she wolfed down the first pile of food, then the second, leaving the deck and doorway free of crumbs. Warily sniffing every millimeter of stained concrete and rapidly devouring each triangular nugget as she eased deeper and deeper into our brightly-lit home office/home theatre/guest room. As her twitching tail cleared the arc of the door, it slammed shut behind her.
Forethought had equipped me with thick clothing and gloves, which now seemed fortuitous, as I knew little about Audrey’s disposition. While Christina grabbed the cat carrier from the garage, I got to know our guest. Noisy, but not angry, she sniffed, and then licked my outstretched hand to glean the last of the Purina One goodness from it. Taking no chances on losing her again, we coaxed her into the kitty carrier and strolled down a few doors to her owners’ address. No answer. Since we’d have an overnight guest that couldn’t safely mix with our own feline companions for fear of violence or outdoor-kitty-ichor transmission, Audrey stayed in the garage with a bowl of food while we fetched a disposable litterpan from the store.
The next few days proved quite wretched. Only three houses removed from our own, Audrey’s owner had still not contacted us. Audrey, however, proved affectionate, talkative, and voracious. When personal visits and voicemail messages failed, we turned to good ol’ text. Using time-honored doorknob-attachment techniques gleaned from takeout restaurant menus and lawn service fliers, I affixed a strongly but carefully worded letter to the door on January 4. At about noon the next day, my phone rang. Sheepish and apologetic for his tardiness, our neighbor was back from vacation at last; he would reclaim the wayward Audrey that night! Four hours later, my phone rang again. This time it was Christina alerting me that we had been burgled, and that the police hadn’t seen any of the three cats that should have been in our house.
I arrived first, and received the grand tour of my own ransacked house through the eyes of the responding officer. A sock drawer tossed in a vain search for nonexistent firearms, jewelry boxes raided for sparkly and precious yet worthless heirloom rhinestones, an office stripped of three computers and an HDTV, and a garage fairly glowing orange with powertools left barren and open. While prints were dusted, I stalked Stonebench’s many nooks and crannies for the cats. Off the office, in the guest bathroom, on the window ledge in the shower, I found small, terrified Smoke cowering. She backed into the corner, quaking when I reached to pet her. I called for one of the officers to grab the cat carrier from the garage, and eased her into it. One cat found, two to go. I filled a dish with kitty kibble and put it on the back porch, as this technique had been so successful in attracting cats up until then. Christina arrived, and put on a brave face while the police finished their investigation. Once alone, tears fell into her bowl of Wendy’s chili. Across the table, outside the back door, we saw something dark move in the porch light. Soot! Affably dim but easily lead by his belly, he had emerged from under the deck when he caught wind of his familiar food. Two cats down, one to go, but no clue as to how to find her.
I made the difficult call to her owner, who was a bit confused, but very understanding. My parents arrived, and my bother and father helped me secure the kicked-in office door for the night. While we chatted, there came a faint meow that could be attributed to neither Soot nor Smoke. No sign of anything out the back door, but the sound seemed to be coming from the other direction. I opened the front door, and circled the house with a flashlight looking for a slinking feline figure. No luck. As I came back in and shut the door behind me, I head the sound again, this time distinctly to my left, in the direction of the coat closet. We had counted ourselves fortunate that nothing in the livingroom had been disturbed, including the still-standing Christmas tree; therefore, neither of us had assessed any damage in the coat closet yet. Open it I did, and out Audrey sprang, with plenty to say besides. It appears that after the thieves went through the side gate and broke in, Soot escaped while Smoke hid. When it came time to open the door to the garage, friendly, conversational Audrey was there to greet them. For some reason, perhaps to avoid drawing notice, or perhaps an affection for cats, instead of letting her escape via the garage door when they opened it to carry the purloined goods away, they put her out of harm’s way. Her owner was even further confused at the next call he received: that Audrey, who had been lost and found and lost was once more found. Within the quarter hour, his ex-girlfriend, who may or may not have had joint custody of the wastrel, appeared to scoop her up and hear the tale of how we lost, and then found Smoke, Soot, and Audrey, too.

Epilogue:
It’s been the better part of a year since the Audrey Saga, as it’s become known in the Taylor household, began. We still think of her fairly often, due in no small part to an unintended consequence of the events occurring during her stay with us. As a result of the break-in, we installed a security system to ensure peace-of-mind. With the system came the inevitable window stickers to ward off intruders. When placing them, I put one on the back door (now the only back door) where Audrey used to come a-begging. After a month of being conditioned to seeing her there, the size and shape of the decal sometimes make us do a double-take.

ceci n'est pas un chat