Christmas 2010

cardphoto2010
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

audrey_pixellated
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.notaudrey

I Want To Ride It Where I Like: Update

me and the velocipede

It’s been four weeks since I halved the number of wheels I commute on, and I’m still having fun. Though the mercury has climbed a bit, I’ve hewed close to my 4 out of 5 days cycling routine, and fought back against the heat with more breathable shorts and a trunk to tote my work clothes in. I’m even considering a move to an earlier workward ride in order to avoid the increasingly warm, muggy mornings.
I’ve learned a few lessons along the way, too. Among them the ill-suitedness of sidewalks to cycling, as they are designed for moseying legs and feet, not spinning wheels. That lesson came from a lamppost at the cost of a headlight and a bruised shoulder and hip. Also, I’ve found that I am not very aerodynamic, the corollary of which is that headwinds are a bitch. That lesson came from a blustery cool front at the cost of dirty looks from two turds in a fart-canned Civic and two very, very sore legs.
And then there’s the gear: sweet, life-affirming gadgetry! Apart from my new-found love of loose-fitting, paper-thin, moisture-wicking, micro-perforated polyester blends (as Matthew Lillard told us,”Spandex: it’s a privilege, not a right.”), I’ve invested in a number of doodads to make coexisting with purportedly human-piloted steel beasties a more safe and sane experience. There’s the helmet, of course, but also a tiny, adjustable mirror-on-a-stick attached to the visor that allays any fear that a strangely silent semi is bearing down on me; the obligatory tool and tube patch kit; a tiny cylinder of carbon dioxide to top off tires that are feeling too soft, as well as reminding me that pV=nRT; a rather loud refillable air horn to help ward off automotive intrusions into my personal space; and the aforementioned ballistic nylon trunk to haul clothes, lunches and pocket chattel to and fro.
And the downside? It certainly takes longer to get to work, doubling the ten-minute commute by car, then another few minutes to change when I arrive. It’s probably a bit less safe, to be sure, but not much more so than, say, motorcycling, and thus far I’ve shed ten pounds with hopes to shed many more, pounds which would themselves have continued to be an ongoing danger to me even in the safest vehicle. What I do miss, though, is the calm moment with Christina before work commences, riffing on NPR stories, talking about her classes and our after-work plans while I drive and she breakfasts before depositing me at my office and taking the wheel. Fridays, though, we still commute together so I can be fresh and ready to go out after work. Yet another reason to look forward to Friday.

I Want To Ride It Where I Like

The end of four and a half months of being too busy, too tired, or too unprepared, while the weather was busy being too cold, too wet or too pollen-y came Monday morning when I released the brakes and coasted down the driveway on my way to work. Usually, one pedal is the throttle, and the other the brakes, but today both were accelerators (and not because of Toyota, either). Entering the corner-de-sac at the end of our street, I started pedaling, just as I have on dozens of occasions since I determined that I was kinda, pretty much serious about cycling to work.
Arriving here (spatially and strategically) took a bit of preparation. I lacked confidence in my ability to cycle competently after nearly a quarter-century out of the saddle, lacked the nerve to navigate fast & busy streets, and lacked a clear picture of just how hard doing such a thing would be. I gained confidence by awkwardly navigating the paths of a nearby greenbelt, then exploring neighborhood streets, much to the amusement of area dogs and my fellow neighborhood cyclists, aged mostly between three and twelve, who favor bikes with paint jobs dominated by shades of pink. I built my nerve by venturing on ever-longer trips down the bicycle lane along Metric Blvd, becoming more accustomed to cars zipping by a few feet to my left and developing strategies for left turns that don’t involve me trying to cut off any vehicle with a mass an order of magnitude larger than mine. Doing this preparation gave me a clearer picture of the physical demands of commuting by bike, demands that I feel even now in my faintly aching quadriceps femoris.
Incorporating a bare minimum of gear (a hedge against possible failure becoming too expensive), this practice and exploration turned into actual useful transportation. It was a lack of usefulness that put me off cycling back when I was aged in the single digits; mid-century development planning practices left my small neighborhood (which was coterminous with the City of Hays) an island of residential streets with no way to get anywhere interesting without a car. My friend’s house could be accessed easily via the back yard, so riding a bike meant going in aimless circles. The impulse against the monotonous, repetitive and boring, especially when I had to make extra time in the day for it, has made exercise regimes difficult to adhere to. Confronted with an imperative to shed mass, I observed that while I had been walking and taking the bus to get home occasionally, a bike would allow me to incorporate exercise with my commute both to work and back home, and do so daily instead of the once-a-week stroll I had become accustomed to.
There’s also the fun, which cannot be written off as an enticement. The path to the office is almost all downhill, which makes it a bit of a thrill in the cool morning air. It also means I don’t get too sweaty, which is nice. Homeward is a different story, of course, because downhill-both-way routes are hard to come by. Fortunately, the good folks at Capitol Metro will haul my lazy tuchus up the hill, that I might then pedal home along the relatively flat portion of Metric Blvd.
Four days of bicycle commuting are under my belt. I plan to repeat this weekly, taking the car only as needed for logistical purposes, and on Fridays when Christina and I go out after work. Summer is fast approaching, which I fear may test my resolve, but my hope is that by the time we wake up to 80°F mornings I’ll be fully habituated and roll on through the heat.

Chicken WTF

I can’t really speak any language apart from English. Not well, anyhow. Whatever French or German phrases I can cobble together are halting, awkward, absurdly accented, incorrectly conjugated and have about a 1/3 chance of having the right genders. In Spanish, I can almost order dinner, but I find emphatically pointing at menu items more effective. English, though, I can do. From high-speed debate spreads to UT instructors purporting to speak the language but showing little evidence of mastery, I’ve developed an ear for extracting the phonemes of Shakespeare’s language out of the unlikeliest places.

I’m reminded of a feat of English-to-English translation I achieved several years ago. My coworkers and I, a handful of young GIS folk mostly just out of college or technical school, were enjoying lunch in the breakroom when Victoria, a petite and quiet Indian vegetarian, asked Julie, an athletic and somewhat provincial blonde from east Texas about the latter’s veggie-filled lunch.

“Oh, it’s that Chicken Wah-lah, from HEB. In the freezer section y’know?” Julie replied
“It has chicken in it?” Victoria looked confused, seeing no meat present
“Naw, you have to add it in. It doesn’t come with any.”
“How is it a Walla then?”
“It means like, ta-da
“Oh, I don’t think I’ve heard it like that before…”

Their exchange continued for a little longer, back in forth, two ships passing in the linguistic night, before I saw Julie glance over at me in an attempt to make sure she was making sense.

“It’s Chicken Voilá,” I said, emphasizing the Voi and the ,”as in French for there it is.”
“Ahh…,” they replied in chorus
“So it’s supposed to jazz up chicken for presentation as an entrée,” I noted,”and not a Wallah, in charge of the chicken.”

Christmas 2009

At the Alpha Kappa Zeta Christmas Party, 2009
At the Alpha Kappa Zeta Christmas Party, 2009

At Stonebench, Christmas 2009

To All Sharing Our Genes or Journeys,

The final year of the Aughts found us once again in the thick of it, meeting challenges both expected and unexpected. We count ourselves supremely fortunate to have a family and a family of friends to share our adventures with.

Not long after last year’s letter was in the in the postman’s hands, Russell checked into the hospital as planned to have a benign meningioma excised. Several hours later, 98% had been successfully removed, leaving only a calcified trace clinging to parts too tender to touch. All was well until his temperature began to climb dangerously. Many tense hours later, he awoke to begin a course of Dantrolene, the only treatment for his newly-discovered Malignant Hyperthermia. Within a few days, having bested both tumor and hyperthermia, Russell was back home. By Christmas, the painful phlebitis caused by the Dantrolene had faded as well. With the results of his annual MRI check-up pending, the only reminders of the surgery are the impressive but fading scar and a slight numbness in his right shin.

January saw Christina return to the classroom as a student, beginning her first semester at the University of Texas School of Information (or “iSchool,” as all the cool kids call it). Now finishing the third semester of courses for her master’s degree, she has risen to the challenge of balancing her studying with her teaching, the assignments she completes with the assignments she grades. If all goes according to plan, she will be a licensed school librarian by end of 2012.

As if being a teacher and a student weren’t enough, Christina is now also a president as well. From the start of her term this July until 2011, she leads her graduate chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, presiding at meetings and representing them in the community.

Following on the hardscape project of last year, in August we removed the last of the carpet from the floors of Stonebench, and set about staining the concrete that lay beneath. Much to Russell’s (budgetary) chagrin and (powertool) delight, the quarter-century old beige overspray from wallpainting needed mechanical removal with a heavy-duty hand grinder. The result, is a leatherlike tan finish bordered in burgundy in both office and master bedroom. Soot & Smoke’s upset tummies are easier to deal with now, but keeping a grip on breakables is more important than ever.

This year wasn’t all hard work, though. Spring was punctuated with a refreshing Hill Country getaway, wherein Russell introduced Christina to the charms of Fredericksburg and Luckenbach on a drizzly Memorial Day weekend. We enjoyed strolling, shopping, snoozing, strumming & singing, Shiner, sausages and even some ‘splosions (of the professional, controlled variety). Without that relaxing interlude, summer might have proven unbearable.

This season finds us busily baking and organizing for events with colleagues, comrades and clan. Making a whistle-stop en route to Arizona, we’ll host Christina’s parents for her birthday weekend before celebrating with the Zetas as we kick off Christmas week. Come Christmas Day, we’ll visit Russell’s family, followed the next day with some old friends. When the calendar makes its next flip, we hope to be in a good spot over Lady Bird Lake to watch the fireworks. Work and school will dominate Twenty-Ten, but we do plan to visit Big D for the Zetas biennial Boulé come July. 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!

The Cat That Wasn’t There

Living with cats brings with it many joys: a steady stream of vomit to clean up, little pink anuses in your face while you fall asleep and litterbox duty, to name a few of the more popular ones. Occasionally, though, I discover a new source of cat-related wonder. It is amazing, for example, just how many things around the house can easily be mistaken for a lurking feline.

This is a phenomenon abetted by my poor eyesight, which is bad enough that without correction, this text resembles ant trails on my screen. Another accomplice are my glasses, which, in the name of a snappy look, sacrifice peripheral vision. Glancing down shifts my field of vision into the uncorrected area, which is why I move my whole head to glance at the keys while I hunt & peck.

One common not-a-cat in our household is the stray pair of boots. I own a single pair, pictured here, but it’s far more likely that the cat that won’t answer in the half-light of the bedroom is one of Christina’s many vastly more fashionable and less country-western pairs.

01_boots

 

The smaller of our two critters is Smoke, a female who enjoys perching close to eye level. Our dresser is about the perfect height, and since she doesn’t get in trouble for being there, she’ll often hunker down there or sit up, begging for attention, which is what I thought was happening when I saw this instead:

02_backpack

 

Among the places the wee beasties aren’t allowed are the kitchen counters, a policy I instituted when I entered their lives and put the kitchen to regular use, in order to cut down on my cat hair intake. When cooking one day, I saw this in the fuzzy periphery and yelled at it to get off the counter:

03_shirt

 

When Soot & Smoke play, there are two phases: the mad chase and the stalk. The chase ranges from one end of the house to the other, punctuated with clawless slap-fighting and interludes in which one seems to call time-out or quits the game while the other silently stalks and observes from a higher vantage point, or, as in this case, from around a corner:

04_bag

 

Entwined

I’m not a music guy; I don’t consume a lot of popular music, nor do I profess to be a connoisseur of the art. Mostly, I stick to artists and songs I know. The result of this is that my music collection consists primarily of country from before about 1990 (approximately the time middle school peer pressure drew me onto the sounds of the era), popular alternative rock from the early 1990s through the early 2000s (about the time the chief driver of my music acquisition departed), plus various and sundry pockets of music by groups that I’ve stumbled upon by chance and taken a shine to (influenced primarily by occasional splurges at Cheapo Discs; Man or Astro-man, I’m looking at you).

Nonetheless, even with such a heretofore circumscribed musical universe, although supplemented with Christina’s collection replete with 1990s hip-hop and neo-soul, one of the driving factors in dragging our entertainment system into this century with the addition of a HDTV and an HTPC was to increase the accessibility of our tunes. However, what do we listen to each Saturday night between 7 and 11pm? Not the Johnny Cash & Jay-Z Party Mix, that’s for sure.

It’s an organic outgrowth of a habit begun in the fall of 1993 when Mrs Alves, my speech & debate coach, informed us n00bs that we would be listening to the news on NPR every day. Morning or evening, she didn’t care which, so long as we learned the ins and outs of the domestic and international issues of the day and could produce Chechnya as well as a BBC correspondent.

The news habit outlasted high school, and, with a few gaps, has persisted for a long as I’ve had a radio and somewhere to prepare to go to in the morning or come home from at night. When I remarried, I got my lovely bride hooked on news radio as well. Such serious news is vastly preferable to the fluff pawned off as local TV morning newscasts, and is less likely to make me roll my eyes in disgust than commercial radio morning shows.

The radio, however, doesn’t always get clicked off when the disembodied talking heads fall silent. While Eklektikos doesn’t usually float my boat, returning to the car at the end of a stay-at-home Saturday exposed us to the radio still tuned to the familiar news station, but now pouring much different sounds out of the speakers. Classic R&B, rock, soul and rockabilly, linked together by some often tenuous connection. It’s called Twine Time, and it’s become an addiction. My father-in-law, being a great fan of his generation’s music, conveyed quite a bit of knowledge on to his daughter, who is ever so much better at picking out the artists before they’re announced than I am. The hits (and misses) of the 50s and 60s have become the soundtrack of our weekends, the background sounds to our laundry folding and test grading and blogging. It’s been known to elicit singing-along and even the occasional rhythmic shuffle on my part (dancing would be an overstatement). If it can do that, it’s something mighty cool, indeed.

Rock

I’ve never been much for the outside. The woods, creeks, hills & mountains, even out on the porch and down on the street, sure, but not the plain ol’ outdoors, where things that bite and disperse their reproductive effluvia are. As a sneezy, bookish lad, I had dreamed of how wonderful it would be to simply laminate the outside, preserving it for observation, but keeping its more unsavory bits from contacting me. This past Autumn, I got my chance. The long, parched summer, unlike 2007’s long, saturated summer, was my accomplice. After a few rounds of watering on the prescribed evenings, I decided to be a friend to nature and cease the senseless sacrifice of our precious water resources and stopped watering the lawn entirely. Predictably, the ground cover yellowed, then browned, then gave up the ghost, setting the stage for my machinations.

In the back yard, where we decided to test our mettle, Christina and I sketched out a plan. The south face of the house has a large and newly improved deck jutting out to within 8 feet of the back fence, and spanning 3/4 of the way to the western fence. A slender mulched bed clung to the perimeter of the yard, holding a few assorted rose bushes. We’d also recently acquired a hand-me-down steel shed from my dear brother that almost filled the gap between the deck and back fence. Between the deck and shed, we posited a patio, on which the grill would stand. We overlaid a path of stone on the current red pavers leading to the gate by the front door. The rest we’d blanket with river rock, mutihued and walkable, save two areas around our small mimosa trees.

Measurements in hand, we shopped for rock. The first purveyor we visited helped us convert the one and two dimensional measurements we has into mass. Pity, then, that we didn’t buy his rocks. Instead, we went with another, closer, stonemonger. Two tons of native limestone chopped into edgers, and another two in broad, flat, patio form. After covering all the exposed ground in the back yard with 6 mil black plastic sheeting, and securing it with lawn staples, we laid the edgers along the deck and the shed, then at the extent of the patio, around the trees, and HVAC unit. As we hauled and arranged these stones, we slowly realized that there were far too many still on the pallet to work into our plan for the back yard. Since we planned to do the front yard eventually, we started trimming it with the extra. There were just enough to outline it neatly.

Next came the patio, starting with many bags of fine sand poured and graded with levels and small planks of wood. After much scruching about on the ground, I was almost happy when the time came to haul the exceedingly heavy patio slabs around to lay them out, starting in one corner and building out from there, looking for tidy, interlocking neighbors as I went. Again, we found ourselves with too much stone for our purposes. However, a deadline loomed: I was scheduled for my brain surgery in just a few weeks. Rather than attempt to find a place in the front yard for the patio stones, we switched into safety mode, and hauled them all around back into a neat stack for storage.

The back yard had to be finished, though. On a Friday morning, I ordered 7 cubic yards of washed river gravel, and was greeted by the driveway-spanning mound when I got home. That weekend was spent shoveling and dumping, while Christina manned the action hoe (cue theme music: Action Hoooooe!), spreading the mounds I dumped evenly. Some of the stored slabs became stepstones from the deck over to the gate, down the sideyard. To no one’s surprise, the river rock estimate ended up extremely generous, leaving more than half the width of the driveway blocked by the mulithued gravel.

A week remained before I would be out of action for an indeterminate span of time. Staring down this reality, and not keen on possibly leaving the garage inaccessible, materials strewn about, and generally leaving things half-done, we devised a plan to apply the resources we had to the front lawn in a way we hoped wouldn’t end up looking bizarre. It was our good fortune that our neighbors liked the work we had done already, and invited and encouraged us to apply the same look all the way up to the side of their house and front drive.

The week of December 8 turned out to be the coldest of the season that far. Each night, we’d arrive home from work, change into work clothes, and grab lanterns to illuminate our progress. It wasn’t easy; laying black plastic sheeting in the dark presents some unique challenges. Fortunately, our yard is replete with right angles, and is pretty smooth. A few night’s work, and the front yard had reached the dominatrix/cenobite look that the back yard had achieved several weeks prior, outlined with chopped limestone. On the remaining evenings, I carried patio stones from the pile behind the gate to form a collar around the small stand of aspiring trees. Saturday was taken with familial commitments that involved tasty little fish (and what I feared might be my only Christmas-like gathering). Sunday, though, I got very familiar with my shovel.

When we bought the house, I had long divested myself of most of my tools accumulated during my first bout of home ownership, especially those for yardwork. Ever the tightwad, I bought a pair of inexpensive shovels, one square and one pointed, from Big Lots! in order to dig and spread mulch. The spade was irreparably broken and replaced some time ago, but the transfer shovel is still with me. Starting at about 8 in the morning, when decent folk are sleeping, and decent-er folk are heading to services, I was making indecent scrape-dump-ring noises out on the front drive. Christina emerged from the house a couple hours later on her way to have her hair braided, an all day affair. I continued to shovel, taking time out to saw off the bottom of the gate to the back yard so it would open over the river rock. Pile to wheelbarrow, wheelbarrow to yard. Load after load, carting each to a new location in the front yard. By noon, the pile finally started to look smaller. By early afternoon, a small remainder of the original heap remained, and the font yard looked like some very industrious fireants had moved in.

Bushed, I stowed my gear and collapsed in an ungraceful manner on the office futon. I didn’t hear Christina return or enter. She woke me urgently, concerned for my well-being after seeing the amount of stone I had moved. She urged an early dinner, and afterward, we both returned to the yard. Once again seizing her weapon of choice, she set about spreading the piles, directing me to the places that needed a bit more rock to cover evenly. I placed the two largest remaining flagstones in front of the gate leading to the back yard, and our neighbor’s gate as well. In the end, the stone we had was just barely enough to cover the ground. The cheap-o shovel showed its use from hundreds of aggressive scrapings against the cement drive; the leading edge was no longer flat, but rather concave from the angle at which I had pushed it into the rockpile.

In the end, we got the yard we had wanted since moving in. Better yet, we got it sooner than expected, and at half the anticipated cost. We rock.

Epic

I’ve only ever really worn two bits of what might be considered jewelry: a watch of some sort, since middle school at least, and a wedding band, for most of the time since about the turn of the century. Neither, however, sports any actual jewels. I’ve recently added another piece to my daily parure:

tha bling

Crafted of titanium, to match my watch and ring, the top bears my name and the eye-catching red Star of Life, along with eight syllables that have come to be more worrisome than anything so terse and explicable as mere “brain surgery.” Malignant Hyperthermia, sensibly abbreviated MH, is a rather logical nomenclature for the condition. It’s malignant, i.e., potentially deadly; a thermia, a condition concerning temperature; that temperature being hyper-, in this case meaning elevated. It’s plain to see, then, that with this condition, I could somehow get hot enough to endanger my life; to be specific, when anesthetized with certain gasses. Which I of course did, in the early afternoon of December 16.

I, of course, was unconscious, and as a result missed all the excitement that followed. I’m told my relatively incidental neurological procedure had just concluded with the addition of 28 stainless steel staples to my shorn pate when my temperature started to rise. It kept rising, to everyone’s horror, to the neighborhood of 105F, and my heart rate followed it, accelerating madly. The doctor managing my anesthesia recognized the symptoms and called the number that’s now etched on the underside of my new accessory, 1-800-644-9737, and reached an expert at the Malignant Hyperthermia Association of the United States (MHAUS). Subsequently, I was bathed in ice, and administered a drug called Dantrolene, a substance with which I developed a love/hate/hate relationship, and which sounds like a brand of motor oil.

I returned to the waking world some time later, my wife and parents having whiled away the afternoon and evening in fear for my life. About twelve hours after my last recorded memory of swoopy and bright operating room lights and technicians joking about the freezing temperatures, I woke groggily to the sensation of my limbs uncomfortably bound, and my breathing being haltingly interrupted. “Quelle heure est-il?” I asked in writing, for some reason in French. It was 10pm, a solid eight hours later than I had anticipated, an early indication that something was definitely wrong.

I had been indicating my displeasure at just about every annoyance in the room by liberally flipping it off, in particular the breathing tube that was trying to help me breathe, but was mostly just frustrating my own attempts to do so. Its continued presence was another clue that something seriously bad had transpired. With my family briefly out of the room, I was extubated, which was every bit as unpleasant as it looked on ER. Finally able to talk, I could answer important questions, like what my pain level was on a scale of 1 to 10. “Pi,” I croaked. Suspecting brain damage, the nurse asked if this was my usual personality, and my father apologized that yes, it is. Curious at to how things looked at the site of the original area of concern, I had Sean snap a shot of the scene upstairs.

I had BRAAAINS

I had no real idea of my location, other than that I was in ICU. For some reason, my mind filled in the unseen areas to either side of my bed and behind it not with walls or empty space, but with nigh-endless rows of dimly lit beds, similar to my own. The next day, I got to see the extent of my space.

Never having been under general anesthesia before also meant that I’d never experienced other wonders, like having a Foley catheter, or an anal temperature probe, or the astonishing disorientation that comes from spending almost 24 hours lying down. Nonetheless, the next day found me hobbling down the hall in doubled-up hospital gowns, pee-bag mounted on my walker, probe cleverly arranged so it didn’t trail behind me like a brontosaurus’ tail in some 1950s stop-motion SFX extravaganza.

It was also on the second day that I took stock of my situation, became more completely informed about my allergic reaction to the anesthetic gas, and learned about the downside of the lifesaving Dantrolene. The Evil Bastard Juice, as I came to think of it, was urine-yellow in color, and had to be formulated on-site, as it degraded too quickly for storage or transport. It arrived in a translucent brown IV bag, indicating to me that it was also photosensitive. For all its chemical fragility, it packs quite a punch once it enters the body.

When I was wheeled into surgery, I had one IV on the back of my left hand. Eventually, that was joined by another on my left arm, and five exhausted IVs on various spots on my right arm. After a few uses, a given vein became too damaged to administer the drug though. In fact, once I was past the fog of painkillers, I could feel the Dantrolene entering the vein in a very painful manner, as if a burning knitting needle was being forced into its minuscule diameter. Yeah, I cried. On the third day, though, that came to an end, as it was suggested that I get a PICC line.

A PICC line is essentially an IV writ large. Using ultrasound, the very pleasant nurse whose job it is to go about inserting these time and pain saving devices found a large, deep vein and inserted a surprisingly lengthy tube into it, ending with a trio easy-access screw-top ports through which drugs and saline could be administered, and from which blood could be drawn. Life was good. There was, however, the small matter of my temperature.

My bout of hyperthermia had mightily fouled up my temperature regulation. Dantrolene attacks the root cause of the symptoms, an imbalance in my calcium level, but in order to bring my temperature down to normal levels, other means were necessary. On the evening of Decemeber 18, I had the unique frustration of watching my family grow more and more anxious while they visited me and got to see my temperature gradually rise above 102F on a monitor behind my head, which I couldn’t see. Frightening though that was, it did bring about my introduction to yet another nifty bit of technology, the cooling blanket. With one on top and one below, I slept the night away in 55F comfort. I need such a device for my side of the bed this summer!

These efforts were rewarded on Christina’s birthday, Friday the 19th, with my move from ICU to a normal recovery room. I had my Foley bag removed, in the process discovering that it was kept in place by a small balloon of sorts, leading me to be even further weirded out by the thought of a balloon in my nethers seconds before it was gently-as-possible slipped out from my urethra, causing my external organs to retreat to approximately my sternum. IVs removed and personal effects collected, I was wheeled up to my new room.

Now, all this time, I had gone without a shower, my last one being the morning of the surgery. The intervening time I had spent mostly laying down, but often running a fever, or being generally clammy. This had left me in a less-than-fresh state. To make matters worse, the damage the Dantrolene had visited upon my various superficial blood vessels had left me with a left hand that cold not grip and a right arm that could not bend. One arm’s worth of usefulness spread across two arms makes doing things like showering well-nigh impossible. Fortunately, I was told I could get help with this from the tech who did other such wonderful things like refreshing the sheets, taking vitals, and checking in hourly to ensure my comfort. They rocked. When the overnight tech popped in, I chickened out of actually asking her to help me wash up, but Christina had no such compunction.

The family evacuated to the waiting room, and the tech helped me undress. No sooner did she disentangle the modesty-preserving doubled-up gown than she took note of something unusual. “Sir, what,” she asked, “is that?”I looked down and to the side toward my right hip area, and rested my hand on the faint grey shape I could just make out there without my glasses on. Stuck to my behind with a small patch of tape was the lead to my still-firmly-in place anal temperature probe.

Note that in the events leading to my being wheeled up to the new room, I never mentioned “had the temperature probe removed from my ass.” That’s because that step never happened. In the rush to get me out of ICU, someone forgot that step, and it’s not like the thing loomed large in my mind, either; I hadn’t been awake when it went in, and for the most part, it just felt like a minor wedgie, a condition endemic to lying around in a loose fitting garment. Plus, I hadn’t had more than a few bites of solid food since the night before surgery, so there certainly wasn’t any urgency that might have sped its discovery.

This was all made so much worse somehow by the fact that a) the tech was black, which despite my being married to a black woman, and not being especially liberal, still managed to stir some White Liberal Guilt™ over her scrubbing my hairy pale ass; b) she was also young and quite attractive, an inexcusable condition in which to be subjected to my rapidly aging and decidedly not-as-attractive physique in its full ingloriousness, which was in turn exacerbated by c) my family (wife included!) being in the next room.

Much to the credit of the young lady (whose name is withheld here to save everyone a bit of mortification), she not only soldiered on in assisting my hot and refreshing shower, helped me into a fresh gown, and made my bed while cheerily chatting and complimenting both my mother and my wife (between answering her phone tersely with her full first name, a decidedly de-ethnified version of which appeared on the dry-erase board in my room), she also managed not to laugh about my grey “tail” until out of earshot. Shortly after she left, the nurse entered to inspect the situation. Dignity long lost at this point, I parted the back of my gown like stage curtains, revealing the source of the problem. She ducked out, made a call, and returned with a pack of warmed towelettes and closed the door before she instructed me to relax and take a deep breath. A firm tug and an awkward and prolonged wiping or three later, and I was tail-free and able to relate this story, in the first of many re-tellings, to my family, who seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in my humiliation.

In the night, after the last saline IV for the day was spent, and I was wholly untethered, I made my move to recapture a semblance of dignity. Having expected a much less exciting recovery, I had packed normal bedclothes for my stay. It was these real, live underwear and undershirts that I pursued as I struggled to lever myself out of bed, using my left arm to push down on the rail and my right hand to keep me from falling out of bed. I shed my gown and gingerly maneuvered the garments. Never has so much strategic thinking gone into putting on boxer-briefs. In a fit of hubris, I even slipped on my lounge pants. Now I was recoverin’ in style.

By Saturday, word had gotten around that I was back on my feet, and so I received a giant bouquet of flowers, the sort that a man never receives unless his life has been in danger; a potted, leafy tropical plant from my colleagues, the sort that makes you regret any slacking you’ve ever done; and a tome of brief biographical sketches of great philosophers, the sort that lets you know the giver doesn’t know you too terribly well, but thinks you’re pretty bright…or at least the sort of nerd to enjoy it (which I am).

I proved to the occupational therapist that walking was not a challenge, and that the actual brain surgery had not had any meaningful impact on me insofar as moving my limbs. With Christina’s help, I refocused all my caregivers’ attentions to the wreck that my arms had become. I became a big fan of chemical heating packs, and learned exercises to promote blood flow and fluid drainage in the affected areas. There were rumblings that I would be released the next day.

Sure enough, on Sunday, December 21, after a fascinating ultrasound of my right arm meant to check for potential blood clots causing the swelling and pain, I was cleared to head home. Christina retrieved real clothes for me to wear, far in excess of what was needed to get me the five yards from the door to the car, while mom and dad went ahead to prepare our house for my homecoming. While Christina brought the car around, I chatted with the lanky African lady who had wheeled me down to the door. “I was a little afraid I wouldn’t get home for Christmas,” I mentioned. “So this is like an early gift, then,” she replied. I nodded my agreement. “Who from, do you suppose? Santa Claus? God?” I felt myself become slightly annoyed by what I took to be an opportunistic grab at proselytizing. I was too happy to be too snarky, though. “Hard to say; Mom’s always said I was bad at checking gift tags.”

The air was cold, but fresh. The car rattled, but was familiar. The house wanted tidying, but it was, at last, home.

ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk