Barbara Ann Polk 1941-2018

Barbara Ann Polk left this earth on February 9th, 2018 to be with the angels, while in the company of her family. Born June 8, 1941 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, she was her mother’s youngest child and her father’s second child. Barbara moved many times in her life, Sacramento, CA; Leoti, KS; Sweetwater, TX; San Angelo, TX; Albuquerque, NM; and Buda/Austin, TX. She graduated from Angelo State University in 1992 with an RN and worked as a nurse and hospice care supervisor for many years. She was preceded in death by her mother – Lucille R. Lavo Zonge, her father Randolph Daniel Zonge Sr., her stepmother, Marie Mendler Zonge, and her brother Kenneth L. Zonge. She is survived by her brother, Randolph Daniel Zonge, Jr.; her children: Ray Anthony Steele, Jonnette Ann Kraft, Dawn Marie Wostal, John Russell Steele and her seven grandchildren and her three great-grandchildren. The family will have a private memorial service for her in the fall. She requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to World Vision. (www.worldvision.org)


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It Is Not Fair.

 The strongest of women.
The weakest of which
Are stronger than any man
While lying on their backs
Receiving the obeisance of men
Succumbing to their own mortal lusts.

She was the strongest of women,
Now struck down by the power of creation itself.
The mad hatter of genomic mutation,
Cancer, consuming her from inside.
She who could not be broken breaks herself.

It.
Is.
Not.
Fair.

But she succumbs anyway.
Fair is not a word nature understands.
She who consumes the innocent and the guilty,
The survivor and the wretched fool alike.
Nature claims her anyway, fair or not.
The hands that raised a multitude,
Struck down by simple time.

Sitting a Vigil

It’s four in the morning. I’m holding my mother’s frail hand in mine, for one last time. It is warm still. I’m trying, in what I’m certain is a vain attempt, to communicate with what little is left of her. What little the cancer hasn’t already eaten. Trying to let her know that we love her.  That we know she loves us, but it really is time to go. The curtains are closing. Silence is descending.

“Rage against the dying of the light?”

The light is gone. The rage is spent. The breaths are ragged, sometimes minutes apart. Will this be the last one? And then the next one comes. Why does life go on without purpose? How do the systems that make up the form that is my mother, with all that a mother is to a child, how is it that the systems don’t know the purpose has been served? The children are safe and grown. The fight is done. How can it be that she would not know this? She who knew how to mend wounds with a kiss, not knowing the battle was won long ago?

It is a shame. A shame that the kisses of loving children and grandchildren and great grandchildren cannot cure cancer. Cannot mend the ills of old age. Cannot wisk away the pain the way that a mother’s love can. A shame that she fights on for each painful breath of life, not knowing that the decision was rendered in her genes years ago. This battle cannot be won.

It is the fate of us all. To be born is to someday die. A dance with death that spans all of life. Hers has been a long dance. Not the longest, but I think she would say “long enough.” Always time for one more favor for a friend. Always  care to spare for the lost souls. For the wayward child with more will than sense. Always more worry for others than for self. So busy helping others with their battles that she forgot to fight her own, perhaps.

A life long enough to see the children grown. A dance long enough to know the form that the ending will take. Now it is done. We miss you already, mommy.

Status Update: Ubuntu is Now my Friend Again

I whacked Windows 7 on The Son’s old laptop (circa 2012ish) The Dell laptop gifted to me by Eric finally died a tired, old death last year and I’ve been rummaging around the house for another functional portable now that mom is in the hospital. I stumbled across this one in a bag in The Son’s room (also in the bag? The Mac Mini we’d been planning to give to mom. The Wife was ecstatic) but it’s drives were full and it was running a dead old version of Windows that I wouldn’t trust to run reliably or securely away from home.

We discovered that Ubuntu has a Studio version for graphic creators and video editors, so we burned a disk of that OS and after a bit of back and forth we’ve managed to make it work reliably. I am now happily keyboarding from the couch in mom’s hospital room. She’s happily snoring quietly as Rainymood plays on my phone which is plugged in across from her bed.

The interface is clean and spare. The tools for graphics editing are plentiful. I just wish I had enough editing skills to be able to judge their quality. I have always found Gimp perfectly acceptable as an image editor given the limited amount of image editing I do. But then I get by on Windows with just Irfanview. In Windows 10 Paint is capable of saving in common graphic formats (not just for bitmaps anymore!) I don’t know when they added that ability but it is a welcome discovery in version 10.

It looks like I’ll have plenty of time to test tools, sadly. We could easily be here for several more days. But that is OK. I am a vampire and I enjoy waving the nurses away at night so that mom can sleep. With Sister #2 being a nurse and willing to drop by for the day shift, we can keep doing this indefinitely. Well, I can. I don’t really have anything else to do aside from sit at home and enjoy my vertigo. At least here I can medicate my vertigo if it occurs and do so under medical supervision. It is a win-win in my book as long as mom gets better. 

Status Update. A Lot of Hot Air.

The only time you’ll ever see
my #bedhead

So I’m finally feeling almost normal after our trip to Chicago. The day after we returned home, the sore throat that had been bugging me in Illinois turned into a full-blown sinus infection complete with glaring red pink-eye. This prompted a hasty trip to my immunologist and a series of antibiotics. I finished the ten day course of antibiotics on Wednesday, and had my first physical therapy session in three weeks on Thursday. I was bushed after the PT, but that was only part of the problems that surfaced this week.

Monday morning was the follow-up for the 90 day Betahistine (Serc) test that my ENT and I had been running. The results looked promising, and so I’m going to try upping the dose for a year and see what that gets me in the way of relief from Meniere’s symptoms. I’ve noticed that I seem to start exhibiting symptoms again before the next dose of Betahistine is due, so I’m going to take the same dosage three times a day. If you are a Meniere’s sufferer and you have triggers similar to mine, you probably should get your ENT to trial you on Betahistine and see if it helps you or not. I am curious to know if there is a sub-group of Menierians who benefit more from Betahistine than others. This data would clarify whether there is a benefit to Betahistine treatment or not. Comments on this subject are not only welcome but I’ll beg for them if I have to.

I’m feeling better, I thought. I should have known this was a prequel to the hell life had in store for me later in the week. On Wednesday the air conditioning dropped dead on us. It had been acting a little squirrely for awhile now and the system is nineteen years old. Several times over the last few years I had noticed that the thermostat didn’t seem to control the system like it should. It would sporadically fail to come on when it got too hot in the house, and would fail to turn off when it got cold. Sometimes the interior spaces got chilly enough that I thought seriously about wearing more clothing. On Monday, the system’s lackluster cooling performance lead me to do some basic troubleshooting and I noticed that it was well past time for a filter change. Changing the filter did seem to improve cooling and airflow, but Tuesday evening the fan wouldn’t start if we set the thermostat to cool, and Wednesday the fan said fuck it, I’m outta here and refused to start in any position. On or auto. Heat, cool or off. No dice and no air conditioning.

Ah, Texas in the summertime with no air conditioning! Back in the days before that invention every building in the region had ten or twelve foot ceilings and floor to ceiling windows that allowed cool air to enter the building from the lower sash, while simultaneously allowing the heat to escape the building from the upper sash (this is the origin of the term double-hung for the architecturally curious. Windows which can be opened from both top and bottom) and even then you slept outside on what was referred to as a sleeping porch because it was too hot to sleep indoors at all. Air conditioning changed architecture radically and not necessarily for the better. With the ability to alter indoor temperatures builders could ignore long-held rules of thumb that governed Southern construction, putting large glass facades on South-facing walls and lowering ceilings to the now-common eight foot height. Which is all just fine, as long as the air conditioning works.

So we called our handyman, but he was out of town for a week. Deeming it time to bite the bullet, we called a contractor we have dealt with successfully before, and they sent a guy out on Friday. Based on his estimation we had to replace parts just to see if the system could be revived or not. I’ve been down this road a few times. Replacing one part leads to replacing another part, which leads to replacing a third part until at some point you’ve rebuilt the entire system. As I mentioned previously, it’s a nineteen year old system. I can’t even get refrigerant for it anymore, legally. Spending money on this dinosaur is throwing good money after bad.

The heat and the humidity were threatening to send me spiraling back down into vertigo hell, but the salesman (comfort adviser) who showed up to pitch us on a new system came bearing gifts of window units. Consequently we were open to the idea of looking into replacing the ancient HVAC system. This was a theoretical possibility on Friday, a possibility that is rapidly gelling into a reality for Monday. So I’m taking this opportunity to start some renovations of my own that I’ve been wanting to get done since the first day we toured the place before buying it.

I won’t be raising the floor in the former garage yet, that project is a bit too ambitious even if it is desperately needed. The attic fan that has hulked above my head every time I climb the stairs is going away though. I’ve wanted that thing gone from the time we moved in. I can’t use it. It draws outside air into the house unfiltered. Everything outside wants to kill me with allergies. The last thing I need is something that pulls even more allergens into my breathing space. The window units alone are making my symptoms worse, I can feel vertigo perched above my head like an unwelcome avian visitor. Removing the attic fan means the upstairs HVAC will finally be properly balanced without the thing taking up attic real estate and letting attic heat into the living space.

Who knows, maybe other repairs and modification are following fast on the heels of the new HVAC system? Hope springs eternal, even for those cursed with chronic illness.

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer 
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”Edgar Allan Poe 


I got what I wanted out of the project, but it took a herculean effort to get it done. A lot more work than it should have been just to get satisfaction out of the project. I wanted the Wife to try her hand at managing a construction renovation with outside contractors, she’s been dabbling in renovations with some of her starving artists and actors as hired hands. Not making money, not enough to talk about anyway, but being productive and getting things done for friends. So I let her supervise. We picked the contractor, made sure what we wanted was in writing before work began, and waited for the work to start.

As the saying goes no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the enemy in this case being the existing broken HVAC system, and that pretty much sums up how this project went. The HVAC crew showed up, punched holes in every surface available, or so it seemed, and I did my best to calm the Wife down. Holes in sheetrock make dollar signs roll across her eyelids in a frightening hurry. They did seem to be punching a lot of holes. A lot more holes than I probably would have, but then that’s me. I knew they’d have to patch the holes they made, eventually.

The upstairs system was replaced first. The Daughter and Son were planning on staying in the house through the entire construction process, so their A/C had to be in place as soon as possible. The contractor refused, however, to remove the attic fan. While we had discussed it, he said he would not actually do the work of removing it. So we got some of the hands that the Wife has worked with before to get the giant thing out of the ceiling over the stairs and then put a sheetrock patch up to cover the gaping hole sixteen feet in the air. Twenty year goal finally achieved! With that out of the way, the rest of the upstairs was finished in a day or so (or so we thought) and the contractor moved on to the bigger project, getting the downstairs system updated.

The downstairs system had to be completely removed. This was the agreement before the contractor was signed on. Little did I know just how involved removing the system was going to be. I had wondered to myself for the better part of twenty years just where all the ductwork was hidden in this house. That was a question that was quickly answered for me. It was hidden in the kitchen ceiling. Hidden in the bedroom ceiling. It was clear from the planning stages onward that I was not going to be able to stay in the house with the ongoing construction, this was the second reason the Wife was supervising. I was dizzy within minutes of this phase of the work starting. So we left to find the first of several long-stay hotels that have popped up in the last decade around Austin, while the crew continued to gut the interior of our house.

The HVAC system itself went in pretty quickly. The vertical unit and it’s closet would be removed, the closet abandoned and used for storage, with a new horizontal unit located over the master bedroom, closer to where air conditioning should be in the first place. After the HVAC crew worked out how to get A/C to the now remote rooms in the structure, back where the old unit was, it became relatively short work to get the new ducts in place. That was when the real fun started. The plumbing crew arrived.

surveying the wreckage

We have gas heat, gas water heater, gas stove. I like gas heat. I like cooking with gas. I like not paying for electric heat. I like not burning food with electric burners. We rarely need heat around here, but when you do need it, it’s a requirement. Gas heat requires plumbers and black iron piping, and even more holes in the ceiling. The two plumbers that we ended up with from the four or five who showed up before they were needed could have just as well been the one apprentice. He did most of the work, and he was the more agreeable of the two to start with. The plumber he was helping refused to go up in attic spaces and so consequently required the additional large holes in the ceiling everywhere he needed to work, and they didn’t bother to cover anything before dropping attic insulation, sheetrock dust and plumbing pooky all over everything underneath them. They even made holes that they really didn’t need, in hindsight, after it became clear where they were going to have to run the gas line from and managed to leave the gas turned off to the other appliances for several days in the process.

The upstairs furnace was the last piece of the puzzle to be solved, even though we planned for it to be done first. The gas line spirals it’s way through this house like water in an Escher print. It shouldn’t go where it goes, and it doesn’t make any sense for it to go there, but it does. Why it is where it is doesn’t matter as much as how to attach to it does, and cutting the line where I wanted it cut would have been several thousand more dollars, probably.

Just getting them to tell me where the gas line came from outside the house to where the A/C system had been before we moved it took several days of hounding. When I finally got an explanation, it was from the master plumber for the contractor. And it only took about ten minutes of talking to him to figure out why the plumber who was assigned to our job was uncommunicative. The master plumber? I’m pretty sure he thought he was god himself. Once we got the misunderstanding about the gas line straightened out and agreed on the plan to get gas to the new systems, he demanded that he be compensated on the spot. He had to come out here, we needed to pay him. He had people he paid to do this kind of work. His appearance on the job meant we owed him money.

He left muttering threats under his breath, without his demanded payment, and no payment would be forthcoming unless it came from his bosses in the company. You want to be paid on a separate contract? Work from a separate contract. This isn’t rocket science. But we did get the gas hooked up, finally.

From July 31st to August 14th we lived out of a slowly rotating group of hotel rooms. I was able to stay at the hotel I wanted for my birthday, at least. I even got to swim in the pool, watch a pay-per-view and get drunk in my own hotel room. The cost of this disaster set us back several thousand dollars, but there are many things that you discover a way to pay for if you really need it to survive. I survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this all down. But two weeks was twice as long as the project was slated to take, and the cost could have been much higher if the contractor had felt like billing me for all the extra work they made for themselves to do. After the confrontation with the plumbers and the damage to property created by their ham-handed attempts to get the gas line to the new system, the contractor decided that they would just stick with the agreed upon price and call it even.

The destruction of the interior of our house was corrected, just like I knew it would be. The new finishes are better than the ones they replaced. The new paint a better color than what was there originally. Best of all? The stairs are no longer a trip through the bowels of hell. The heat in that area is no longer fed through a grill that lead straight to unconditioned attic space. The bedrooms are (as they should be) the coldest rooms in the house for the first time in twenty years. I can still hear the TV when the A/C fan is running, and that is a major improvement.

I just wish that the confrontation with the plumbers had not been fated to happen. I really like everything about this contractor and would unhesitatingly recommend them to anyone; IF. If. If they don’t need any plumbing work. HVAC work? They do a great job. The comfort adviser who set everything up was an asset that kept the work going in spite of the trouble the plumbing crew caused. But the plumbers? I wouldn’t use them again if you paid me. I have a plumber already, thanks. He’s gruff and speaks plainly and I get straight talk out of him without having to drag it kicking and screaming into the light. That’s the way I want it. Tell me what the problem is. Tell me what the solution is. Tell me what the cost is. I don’t shoot messengers that bring me bad news. That is what twenty years in architecture taught me. You want the bad news as soon as it is known, because that is how you fix the problem faster and more cheaply. Punishing the messenger is how you end up spending more money. The contractor should have listened to the plumbing apprentice on my project. Should have trusted the HVAC crew when they related the problem. Any of their hands could have told them what the problem was four days earlier in the process. Instead I had to get the information third-hand from the plumber’s boss, who quite literally only made things that much worse. So I can’t sing praises for the company which will remain nameless. Because they don’t deserve blame, either. We were made whole and the systems work better than they ever have.

Now to get on with the other projects in the house. Fixing the Master Bathroom which hasn’t functioned for ten years. Raising the floor in the Master Bedroom. You know, the little things. 

My First Hotel Review; or, How to Argue Unproductively.

For Sandra

We landed in O’Hare on the evening of Tuesday, July eleventh. It was a frustrating flight. The Son had lost his phone on the way to the airport and didn’t realize it until the gratuitous TSA screening, to which I always wear my easily removable shoes and pack everything I usually carry in my pockets into my carry-on. After an unproductive search of the entire Austin Bergstrom International Airport (the phone fell out of his pocket at home) we thanked the TSA agents for their free examination of our various bodily secrets and proceeded to the other end of the airport to board our American Airlines flight. Right out of the gate the pilot informed us it was going to be a bumpy ride, and it was. It was a two-Xanax flight, with Meclizine on top, and I still didn’t manage to sleep for more than 45 minutes of the three hour trip. At least I had decent music preloaded on my phone.
We embarked on this trip to review colleges for the Son and attend orientation. I was being dragged along because it was determined that I needed to get out and enjoy myself. Apparently one can get snippy when confined in isolation for too long. As enticement, relatives suggested that we stay at the Chicago Congress Hotel which they knew I would be unable to resist exploring. I have a known weakness for old buildings and especially old hotels.
When we got to the hotel, dusk was settling. Too late to do anything of merit, including eat much other than room service. We asked the front desk for the nearest pharmacy and ran two blocks to overspend for the necessaries that the TSA will not allow you to travel with anymore. Returning to our room and our well-earned rest, the Wife discovered that her latest movie project had imploded since she left Austin, and that she needed internet access to fix it  This should have been a clue as to how our first few nights would be spent. I should have been paying attention. We couldn’t find a working plug to put her laptop next to, a plug that was also in range of the wifi which for some inexplicable reason only registered near the door to the room.
Failing to solve her internet problem, the Wife decided to soak in the tub, only to discover the tub drain was without a stopper. She discovered that the lavatory drain cap was loose in the bowl. All of these deficiencies were reported promptly to the front desk, and we improvised a solution to make the tub fill anyway so that she could at least try to soak the travel frustrations away.
We used to travel a lot back when we had money that wasn’t being spent on keeping the lights on.  We’ve spent a lot of nights in truly questionable locations over the years of hotel bargain hunting. Some of these locations were little better than tents to keep out the rain and bugs. I do recall at least one location that failed to even do those essential things. A few minor bumps along the way towards winging our way back home were to be expected. 
The next morning started much too early. Because of the lack of internet connectivity, the college-bound portion of our little expedition didn’t know where they were going. The attendant at the closest train terminal, probably a wayward New Yorker, put them on the wrong train. This misdirection on his part made them more than an hour late to orientation. So they were both pissed for the rest of the day. The Son refused to speak to me and hid in his room when he returned. This was probably a smart move on his part. 
I, being the invalid that I am, was tasked with getting us better rooms while they attended to the business we were here for. After dodging overly-helpful maids and tamping down the urge to explore one more mysterious corridor, I arrived at the front desk to be informed that I couldn’t make changes to our rooms because I wasn’t listed as booking the stay. During the fruitless back and forth of conversing with the Wife on her six year old iPhone 4 with 45 minutes of battery life per day’s use, I managed to get in some more exploration.

The Wife insisted I was listed on the booking despite what the desk clerks had told me. In her opinion I should have been able to, and therefore should have changed our rooms. Nevermind that they informed me on my third visit to discuss this with them that yes, I could change our rooms now, having been advised by a manager who had the misfortune of arguing with the Wife on the phone that they had no choice but to get her the new rooms she sent me to request, however there were no rooms on the same floor that we had been assigned to, nor were there any rooms on the Son’s floor two floor below us. There were, in fact, no two rooms anywhere in the hotel that were on the same floor at this late time of the day. Try back tomorrow, was the parting advice I was given. I had failed at my one assigned task. It was going to be a rough night.

The Congress Hotel is a fascinating subject to explore, a nearly priceless historic heirloom. I could crawl through access panels and service corridors for a week in that place and never be bored. It is like an ancient beehive, ruled over by generation after generation of queens with conflicting goals to be met. Built and rebuilt and expanded and rebuilt again, it is an amateur archaeological dream come true. As a travel destination though, it kinda fails.

There was one bright note on that second day of our stay. Exploring the curious method that had been used to add this newfangled thing called electricity to the building, a method involving running a vaguely decorative square conduit along the tops of the foot high baseboards, I discovered one working plug set into the conduit for the room that put the laptop in range of a consistent wifi signal. I also figured out how to plug the bathtub with a washcloth, the helpful maids having thrown out the plasticware that we had plugged the drain with the night before. However the wifi signal even at the door to the room proved to be insufficient to make a spoiled high tech Austin resident happy, so I was not going to be getting out of the doghouse that easily.

It was at this point in the day that I started writing the above review. I was mad. I was being blamed for the first day being shit, tangentially catching hell for the Wife’s movie project disintegrating, catching anger for pretty much every bit of failing that had come along that day. So I latched on to the notion that I would write a scathing review of the hotel and post it everywhere, including on Yelp, just to prove that I was a customer that wasn’t going to take being treated like a stupid tourist.

The Wife hated this idea and proceeded to insult my writing ability in the process. This was perhaps one of the worst arguments we’ve ever had. Right up there with the time I destroyed a cabinet by tearing it off the wall. The time she broke doors off the cabinets slamming them. The many times I have punched a hole through doors or sheetrock. Even worse than the time I bent the stovetop griddle into a U shape whacking it on the sink edge and then storming out of the house wearing only a bathrobe and flip flops and embarking on a two mile hike just to calm down. Yes, we both have some anger issues. Since we were not at home this time, I could not take my anger out on the architecture around me without destroying property that didn’t belong to me and probably breaking bones on hidden structure. Old buildings are quite solid compared to new construction. Consequent to our being in a hotel, liable for any damage we did to the room, some pretty nasty things were said by both of us before we mutually decided that we needed a time out.

I retreated to the lobby to brood for hours, my phone plugged into a convenient outlet near one of the comfy chairs, working and reworking the review I was determined to publish. I was going to publish it, if I could just make it not sound so childish. After all, I had nothing else to hang my meager existence on other than my writing skills since becoming disabled, and she had definitely told me my writing sucked. At least, that’s what I heard. She went for a walk. Around Chicago, a town we had only been to once before fifteen years earlier. She went for a walk. In the dark. By herself. Since she didn’t run into me while out walking she returned to the room for her now recharged phone and texted me, querulously asking if I was planning on ever coming back to the room, and where was I?

It was at this point that zefrank came to my mind. Who is zefrank? On a previous trip to visit the Daughter in college in New York our children had revealed the magic of True Facts to us, their parents. Zefrank is a Youtube phenomenon that had gone right by us old people who had long ago dismissed Youtube as a place to post old home movies or stolen video or music that hadn’t been licensed from the authors. We had no idea that completely new content was being published to that website, or that our children were both watching this stuff all the time. I don’t even think they knew they were both watching the same things. When they realized we’d never seen True Facts, they insisted we watch hours of them while we all sat on the beds in our hotel room. It is one of my most cherished memories of us as a family. Grandma in the next room drinking whiskey and honey for the persistent cough that we later found out was Pneumonia, and the four of us piled on the bed watching True Facts and laughing our asses off.

Here he is telling couples how to argue.


Zefrank1 How To Fight As a Couple Feb 12, 2013

Those are good solid rules, all 900ish of them. It would have been nice if I had remembered them while arguing with the Wife, it might have been a much cleaner fight that way. What I did remember was Morgan Freeman. Not the actor Morgan Freeman, but the True Facts about Morgan Freeman and how we laughed at that video the last time we had been out traveling with the children, in completely different circumstances. Here we were traveling again, trying to help the last child escape the nest, and we were not laughing at all but were instead tearing our love apart. Being supremely stupid. So I reminded her of True Facts and the last time we had been out traveling. About how we were spending our last few days with the Son before he went off to college. Also, I told her the wifi was excellent downstairs in the lobby, and that there was a bar with decent alcohol down here. Working electrical plugs at the tables, even.

After a few stiff drinks in O’Hara’s corner bar, the Wife’s latest movie project was once again out of the ditch and possibly heading in the right direction. You never can tell with movies. Not until they are in the can and on their way to being screened are you sure that a film, any film, is a real thing. Up until that point they are all just dreams you hope to deliver with the help of hundreds and possibly thousands of people. Which means, they more frequently blow up and are never seen at all, than they ever get seen by anyone. That is simply the law of averages. The more complex the project, the more chances there are of its explosion and disappearance. She wasn’t ready to forgive me the failure of getting the room changed, even after a walk to the fountain and back, but she wasn’t quite ready to kill anyone at the moment. I call that a win.

We did go on to stay a few more nights at that hotel. We traveled around Chicago together with the family who had suggested the hotel and that we had agreed to meet there. We took in the sights, visited the Shed and the Navy Pier, wandered around the remains of the grounds for the Chicago World’s Fair. The next night we had dinner with friends I hadn’t seen in a decade, at least. People that I had known in my previous life as an architect. All of it was better than that first day and the argument. But I never did get that review finished. What is above is all I ever wrote on it. Perhaps I was being childish all along. It definitely wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time.

The Son didn’t go to Chicago State. He liked the idea of attending A&M better. Since the Wife graduated from UT, I expect that will lead to arguments sometime in the distant future. At least, I hope it does. I look forward to documenting those arguments, too.

A Toast to My Alcoholic Father

“You would never know if I relapsed,” he said to me. “I was very good at being an addict.”

No, honey, you weren’t. None of us are. We think we are cleverly hiding it. We think we have it under control. We think we are getting benefit from it. We think we are the exception to the rule. We think we will be able to prevent it from consuming us.

A Facebook Status Post

I have taken out the garbage in my home (eldest son always gets that job, ditto with husbands)  for my entire life. Consequently I know what people throw away in the house. I know who recycles and who doesn’t. I know who is doing what based on what garbage appears in their waste cans. It is extraordinarily hard to disguise behaviors that create garbage, behaviors that leave behind evidence which must be destroyed if you want that behavior to be secret.

My dad went through an astronomical amount of Canadian Club, Black Velvet, etc. At least a fifth every, single, day, without fail. I must have hauled several tons of discarded glassware to the ashcan over the course of the years I lived at home with my parents. We kids knew the drill. Ice (this much) bourbon (that much) water (a much smaller amount) He always drank, all the time. It wasn’t until the drunk driving laws started appearing that he knew he was heading for trouble, because he couldn’t be without his glass of bourbon and a cigarette (Pall Mall‘s) at any point in any day. Couldn’t do without it (them) until the cancer started.

When the cancer started it became imperative that he stop smoking and drinking, and he still couldn’t do it. He just didn’t know how to stop. He switched to low-tar cigarettes first. No more filterless Pall Mall’s, it was Carlton‘s or whatever else he was trying that week. He insisted the low-tars were filled with cabbage leaves, but he had to have a smoke. The bourbon took longer for him to give up. He switched to cheap beer when it finally became clear he was going to have to stop his addictions, not understanding that he was going to have to actually stop the behaviors entirely. He smoked and drank until they stopped allowing him to eat because of throat cancer. In the end the addictions killed him by causing the cancer, and that is what I remind myself of mentally every time someone offers me a cigar or I pour myself a drink.

I stopped smoking cigarettes ages ago because I could feel the drag they were putting on my lung capacity, and that process took years. One of my sisters now runs a cigar shop and I have to decline offers of cigars every time she comes to town or we meet with relatives who have seen her recently. I can feel the itch of a lifetime nicotine addiction in the corner of my mind just thinking about picking up a coffin nail. The air in the Steele household was blue with tobacco smoke for my entire childhood. Nicotine was in the air I breathed every day until I left home and had to infuse the drug by smoking it myself. Kicking that habit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it took years of mentally associating the desire to smoke with the smell of a the bars I worked in as a young adult, reminding myself of the stale smell of smoke, sweat, alcohol and vomit that permeates the air of a bar before all the people show up and renew the smells with life.

My dad loved to tell a story about me when I would drink with him. One thing my dad was really good at was spinning yarns, and he could talk all day and night if you let him. He was a certified master of bullshit and I could sit and listen to him talk for as long as anyone would let him talk. I was fascinated by his ability to just make stuff up on the fly. The bare bones of the story went like this; The first time my parents took me along for a fine dining experience, one that included courses of meals and an after-dinner drink, I cried for the glass of cognac they sat in front of my father. My father, being the indulgent person that he really was, wanted to see what I would think of the cognac. Would I hate it? Would I reject it because of the alcohol taste? He didn’t know. So he handed me the snifter and as he told it “You drank it right down. Sat there for a few seconds. Then you cried for more!” It always got a laugh and I laughed right along with him.

I am reminded of that story every time I crack open a new bottle of brandy or cognac, which is about the only thing I will drink these days; and I will drink a quiet toast to my father on those days. It is because of him that I am not an alcoholic, and that is probably the best lesson I learned from him. I have often wondered what he would have made of the efforts to end addiction these days? Would any of them have helped him? Would he have wanted help?

Radiolab – The Fix – December 18, 2015

The State of My Union?

Trump speaks to Congress tonight. I’m being told I need to watch it. Telling Americans they need to watch this speech is like telling Romans they should listen carefully to the fiddling of Nero while Rome burns.

I have much, much better things to do; even if those things include having my toenails painted by my daughter.

As a rule, I generally watch the State of the Union speeches. I try to catch them every year. Until this year. This year I will not be listening, just as I have tried to never listen every time the Orange Hate-Monkey speaks. This is an attempt to conserve the brains cells that I have left. Listening to lies has been shown to make you less intelligent, and I know that Trump will be doing nothing but lying anytime he speaks.

I’ll pay attention to the president when (if) we get a different one.

Why is Work Making Us Miserable?

FT Podcast Feed

Lucy Kelloway’s podcast episode Why is Work Making Us Miserable? made me wax nostalgic for my working days of yore.

I had (still have) a love of architecture, a desire to understand a process and to make it work seamlessly. This made drawing architecture doubly or triply interesting. Generally I was dealing with at least two processes; how to use the tools I had effectively and quickly, and how to draw so as to produce the most insight into the finished design the leadership of the design team wanted. On the best projects I was also learning about the process the architecture would enable. Public speaking or sales or manufacturing. Even parking garages had unique traffic flows.

But all of that doesn’t add up to loving drawing, which is ultimately what my job was. I haven’t drawn a thing since struck with the epiphany that I really hated producing illustration. That I am unapologetically bad at drawing by hand, and that I really wanted to be doing anything else.

I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos  of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible. – Coping With Dysgraphia

Is it weird then that I would still go back to architectural drawing in a heartbeat? I would. I would loathe drawing elevations and stairs again. Details and plans. But I would be a part of that process again. I would feel that my existence was  meaningful again, contributing to something larger than I am. 

Facebook status backdated to the blog. I loved Lucy Kelloway’s podcast for the Financial Times. She always made me laugh with her dry wit. I hope she is enjoying her new teaching job.

Coping With Dysgraphia

For Gregory


When I was a senior in high school I had a friend who would borrow one of the novels I carried everywhere with me and casually doodle the most amazing cartoons on the flyleaf. His cartoons were better than the things published in MAD or Cracked. My memory of that time may be a bit hazy now, but they were better to me then. Funnier. I marveled at the effortless way the pictures just came out of his hands, at his ability to draw, to write. It struck me as such a wonderful gift, to be able to take a pen and have it just make the lines you wanted to make and to make only those lines in the ways you saw them in your head.  Freehand artwork, freehand writing, is almost magic in my eyes.

They didn’t have a word for my disability when I was in school. I was never quite like the other children. Teased frequently, I hid in books and stared at my desk, afraid of catching anyone’s eye lest I be subjected to more derision. I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that I was different all the same. The teasing I was subjected to originated with my second grade teacher who thought it would be a good idea to have the other kids torment me to make me write faster.

In my mind the first and second years of elementary school seem to blur together. It’s hard to separate one form of abuse from another. One of my teachers thought that teasing me was the ticket to getting me to perform. The other one thought that daily corporal punishment was it. Both were dissuaded from their delusions by my parents. The corporal punishment stopped, but the teasing continued until I moved away from that town. I wasn’t to be free of the hangups that this teacher’s cruel methods of instruction inflicted on me until well into adulthood. To this day I remain a public school skeptic largely because of my experiences in school at the hands of the children and this particular teacher, evidence of just how much damage one wrong idea can inflict.

My problems in school were bad enough that the school insisted my parents take me to see a specialist. We went to see the same diagnosticians in Denver two times; once in second grade and again in 5th grade. The school insisted that there was something wrong with me; it wasn’t the teacher, it wasn’t the other children. There was something wrong with me. So my parents paid for the doctors and paid for the travel, and off we went on what was a grand adventure from the perspective of my seven year old self.

I remember the experience because it was such a rare occurrence to be in another place. The Rocky Mountains around Denver were about as different from the grassy plains of Kansas as you can get. It was the first airplane flight I could remember, and it made me love flying. I have a great love of Colorado largely because of the experiences I went through in Denver on those two visits.

The doctors were nice. They gave me various tests. Handwriting tests, drawing tests. Clearly they were looking at motor control in the manner after the time (late 60’s early 70’s) trying to figure out why I couldn’t write well. Writing really hurt. It still hurts. The stupid pencils never went where I wanted them to go. Lines were never straight. Letters were never legible. Cursive? Cursive was a practice in slow torture. Every assignment in school made me suffer in silence; unable to write and yet required to write. Homework went undone. Not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I literally would grow tired from the constant pain of writing and simply pass out on my homework.

My mother doesn’t remember the word dysgraphia being used at the time, but what I was suffering through was distinctly dysgraphic in nature.

I loved to read. Reading and writing are two completely different exercises in the mind. The words would sometimes get tangled up in my head, but the places I could go while reading were so much better than the reality I was facing that I just soldiered on through the occasional confusion. But writing? I flunked a semester of english my sophomore year in high school because half of my grade would be based on a term paper I would be required to write long-hand. The subject of the paper that was selected for me was of no interest to me. I asked the instructor for a different subject more than once, only to be told I would write the paper and to stop arguing about it. In one of my first acts of rebellion I flunked the class rather than spend a week or more in agony only to have the paper rejected because it couldn’t be read.

I have never taken notes in class. When told to take notes I would write a few lines and stop (a trick I learned early. If the page is blank the teacher will notice and scold you) Notes were pointless. By the time I had written down the first sentence I’d have missed the next three sentences. What I learned to do was listen and absorb so that I could repeat what was said almost verbatim, at least briefly. Eventually I learned to synthesize the information internally and was able to rapidly apply it to new problems without ever having to write anything on paper.

I only recently learned that the ability to synthesize data internally is itself a special skill. Most people cannot remember things, cannot apply knowledge, without writing these things down.

Few of my teachers believed that I could do this, that I could absorb and apply knowledge without first committing it to paper. They especially didn’t believe it because I failed so frequently to do anything demonstrative in front of the class. I was afraid to write poorly and so would take far too long at the blackboard to be able to demonstrate anything to anybody.

Even though the specialists who tested me in fifth grade issued written instructions, specific to each teacher about the challenges I was facing learning in a classroom environment, the instructions were discarded as lending favoritism to a child that the school teachers and administration frankly thought was the problem in the first place. My mother was livid at the time and still gets angry talking about the subject. Did they know how much all of this testing cost? Paid for twice out of my parent’s own pockets? At the insistence of the school? Testing and findings to be discarded as too much trouble to institute, to much trouble to turn into a different teaching model?

What they did instead was slap a label on me. They called me slow.

I carried that label with me from second grade through seventh grade. The label and the torment only stopped at that point because I moved away from my hometown in Western Kansas for a few years; and when I came back to Kansas for my sophomore year of high school it was to a different town, Garden City, and to a different school. I never did spend any significant time in Leoti from that point forward. My nostalgia for the place I long considered home is leavened with ambivalence and rebellion. Rebellion against the label slow.

My sophomore and junior years of rebellion in Kansas and the custody of my father got me sent back to Texas and my mother. The all too familiar plight of children caught up in divorce. Shuttle diplomacy and holidays with the other parent. Custody battles and missed child support payments. From Leoti, Kansas and slow to Stinnett, Texas and rebellion. Garden City, Kansas and missed opportunities to Sweetwater, Texas and make the best of what you have left.

My senior year of high school in the late, hot Texas summer of 1980. My friend and his artwork were also transplants to the town and the school. Since we were both new, we decided to navigate the terrain together. Watch each other’s backs. The counselor lined out the required classes we would need to finish the year and graduate. He and I would be in organic chemistry together. A class we both found so boring that I would read and he would doodle on my books. We also had a few other classes together.

This is small town rural Texas, education isn’t something they spend a lot of money on. In the Kansas high school I had attended the previous year I had automotive mechanics and welding and a virtual smorgasbord of other classes I could have picked through if I had wanted to test my abilities in other areas. In small town Texas I essentially had two elective choices; metal shop and woodshop. Home economics would not be offered to boys. There was an FFA group, but animal husbandry was not my thing even if we had a farm to raise animals on (we didn’t) When we were unimpressed with the first two options, the counselor did admit that they also had a typing class and technical drafting. These were clearly choices she didn’t think anyone should be interested in. When we went around to talk to the various instructors to see what we might be interested in, I had an epiphany.

An epiphany in the example drawings from the drafting class. Drawings that illustrated how to build things. I had been a model builder for years by that point, but it had never occurred to me that someone had to draw those assembly instructions. It was the drafting equipment. The drafting machines, boards, lead holders, straight-edges and triangles. The realization dawned on me. I didn’t need fine motor control as long as I had an edge to guide the pencil. I could focus on pressure and distance and not worry about direction. Writing? Slow, painful, tedious work; but block lettering gave me the ability to finally be able to communicate what I wanted to say clearly. Leroy lettering guides kept the hands moving, forming the correct shapes.

My mother could not believe I wanted to draw when I came home from school that first day. After everything I had been through, the problems I had writing and communicating all my life. Writing, she told me, was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories. She would write things down that I asked her to, and then I would meticulously copy each character onto another page. But drawing? She couldn’t figure out what the attraction was. If that was what I wanted to do, she wouldn’t stop me from doing it.

It was another senior class that finally showed me how to write painlessly. Typing. I knew touch typing would be a useful skill because I had already seen my first computer keyboard.

My uncle, Kenneth Zonge, was a genius. No two ways about it, the guy is hands down the smartest man I’ve ever met by several orders of magnitude. Smarter than I am by about the same distance. He did early research into electronic mapping of rock strata, using computers to analyze the data and produce results that would tell miners where to dig for various minerals. His company Zonge Engineering and Research still does work in various fields in countries all over the globe. Back in the mid-seventies we went to visit him on a family trip, and he wanted to show off his portable computer.

Still looking for an image of the “Red Baron”

The computer was built into a suburban; as in, it filled the entire inside of the vehicle aside from the driver and passenger seats. You had to open the side doors to get access to the input and output terminals, sitting outside the vehicle in the Arizona heat. As kids the science went right over our heads, but I do remember that he could type on a keyboard and the computer would print the clearest, most precise letters I had ever seen. It talked back to him. He played a text game for us and we were completely blown away by it.

Presented with the chance to learn how to touch-type as a senior, I took advantage of it. IBM Selectric III’s seem clunky and slow now, and error correction was a pain in the ass. But in the 80’s, for me, it was like being given access to electric light for the first time. I could type whatever I wanted on the keyboard and it would produce exactly what I wanted it to say almost as fast as I could think it. I had never had access to anything like it before. I asked to be able to do my homework in the typing lab, it was so much easier to just type it than it was to write it. I knew I’d never be able to afford a machine of my own, but if I could just be able to work in an office, there would be machines in the office I could use.

The pieces of my future were falling into place before me, whether I knew it or not. My intense interest in architecture could be accessed through drafting for architecture. My inability to write could be bypassed by access to a typewriter. After a year of drafting in high school, and a twelve month technical course at the local campus of TSTI, I took my label slow and my newfound tools and went out into the land of design and construction. Went out into the business world and was almost immediately flummoxed by the fact you have to sit still in an office. Sitting still drives me absolutely nuts. Give me some decent shoes and rugged clothes, and I’ll spend all day for weeks exploring every inch of ground around me for whatever can be found. I never really thought about it; but I imagine being cooped up inside revisited the torment of school, being asked to engage in rituals I found painful and to gauge facial expressions I found confusing at best, incomprehensible at worst.

Maybe I need the physical stimulation to make the mind work.

In any case, the first barrier to office work wasn’t actually the writing and drawing. No, the first barrier was getting over my own internal loathing of sitting still. That took years, longer than it took me to learn to type or to draw with precision. Eventually I learned to tap into what is commonly termed as flow now; and I could draw essentially effortlessly for hours at a time, longer and better than my peers. I had to be more dogged, more persistent. I had to be because I was slower than they were. That is an unpleasant, unavoidable fact.

My hand drawing production rate was much slower. However, because I had to take time to make sure the lines were exactly right, my drawings were also generally of better quality. This is not bragging, this is me relating the feedback that I got from dozens of years of work in the field. Yes, Anthony. Your drawings are beautiful. Can you turn them out faster? The same old label of slow coming back to haunt me.

“You are slow, Anthony.” Sounds like stupid in my ears, and it is meant to sound that way. Yes, I take longer to get there, but it will be worth the trip unlike some draftsmen I won’t mention. That is the line that ran in my head in response. I had to bite that retort back more times than I can count.

I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos  of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible.

In the end, I did it.

Not because I got faster at hand drawing than anybody else. No, all of my peers can sketch rings around me. They always have been and probably always will be able to draw rings around me. The few times I’ve ever had to draw anything by hand in the field I was embarrassed to do so. My contractor friends, men who trusted my drawings implicitly, were always careful to assure me it would be fine, but I know just how childish my scribbles looked.

They were bad, and it was a barrier that kept me from advancing in the field of architecture. More than once I was offered promotion to supervisor or manager and I always balked at it. Why? Because supervisors and managers draw freehand right on the paper, and the draftsman just takes what they draw and cleans it up. I was really good at the clean up part of the process after years of practice. I was never going to be good at the freehand part. That was not something I would be able to do, and deep down in my heart I knew it was a barrier that I could not cross.

What changed things for me was the early exposure to computing at the shoulder of my beloved uncle. The exposure that made me understand the power of computers.

When you draw something in the computer, it can be duplicated endlessly without degrading the copy. The digital world allows you to be able to replicate whatever work you’d done previously by simply copying and pasting. Drawing guides are built in, so shaky handwork is irrelevant. The initial precision was the determining factor of replicability, and I had honed precision to a fine art already. It was just a matter of mastering the new tools.

Since I couldn’t get my employers to see the vision of my uncle’s suburban filled with computer gear, I took it upon myself to enroll in courses at Austin Community College so that I could gain access to contemporary PC’s of the time (386‘s probably) while the motor control problem makes me a klutz with hardware, software is just a matter of understanding the logic of the system in a way that allows you to utilize shortcuts built into it. Classes in programming were more than I wanted to deal with at the time, and programming itself means little to me still, but breaking security barriers on the simple GUI’s the school used at the time was child’s play, and I spent a year learning how not to get caught doing things with the computer that weren’t allowed, while learning the reasonably simple (for an experienced draftsman like myself) drawing exercises that I had to produce in order to pass the class.

When the classes were done and I felt prepared for what I saw as the inevitable future, my employers threw me a curveball and bought into a CAD program other than the one I had trained for. While I had spent a year learning AutoCAD, other CAD programs had made inroads in the architecture field and my employers purchased a program called CADvance and hired an operator from outside the firm to run the system.

Side note. It’s nice to know I was actually behind the times when I started my evangelizing for CAD and computers in the architecture sphere. I found this article over at Reanimation Library on Boyd Auger’s 1972 book, The Architect and the Computer quite interesting.  Quite interesting that in 1972 the trend towards digitization was this apparent to anyone, even if they were really only promoting the products they had created to digitize documents.  I really do hate to think that something that I thought was apparent was invisible to everyone else. Clearly, not everyone. /sidenote

Undaunted, I simply learned the far more straightforward command parameters for CADvance. The process took all of three days and I was already (unbeknownst to me) as fast or faster than the outside help my employers had hired. I mastered his system and improved on it before realizing I wasn’t going to be going anywhere in that firm and made the move to another firm. A larger firm that used both systems I already knew.

It was about the time that my new employers adopted a third system Microstation and I mastered that program (with the help of the Wife’s student software discounts, her then ongoing pursuit of an MLIS and her still invaluable proofreading skills. Love you too, dear) and then started helping my co-workers become proficient with this new third system that I began to realize that I wasn’t the slowest person on the floor. In the middle of a monologue of self-criticism about streamlining some process or other, the coworker I was talking to stopped me cold to inform me that you know you are the fastest draftsman on the floor, right? No, I hadn’t known it until he pointed it out.

Liberation from false constraints, from labels you never wanted, never accepted, is a feeling that is hard to describe. Hard to fathom. I will be eternally grateful to my friend and coworker who pointed this fact out to me. It was years of additional work understanding just what it meant to not be seen as slow and stupid. To not have to push back against a negative view, a constraint you internalized and never let go of until long after everyone around you had stopped holding the view and instead were puzzled by what continues to drive you to be faster.

A recurring argument that I had with a few of my supervisors and fellow architects (back when I had a license, back when I was one of them) was the common belief that people aren’t in nature when they aren’t working on a 2D paper surface. The misguided notion that the synthesis of ideas requires a fixed medium (paper) and a writing implement (pencil) to engage the creative brain.

Future architects are explicitly told by some college professors that they “cannot design in a computer environment.” This false limitation being taught to so many students appals me to my core. It invalidates everything about me, my experiences, my pain and trials and eventual triumph. Is it a good thing that I never went to college to learn architecture? Had I followed the traditional route, embarked on a master’s degree in Architecture, I might have had this additional bad information to wrestle with and put behind me. Computer design is wholly artificial and so it can’t be a place to design in.

Hogwash. 

If I accepted this falsehood as truth I would never have embarked on my journey in the first place. I’d be just as disabled and just as hopeless, but with no belief that I could ever be more than that. Paper and pencil are natural to the people who find them natural. If the characters will not flow from you hands using them, find some other medium to express yourself in. All of them are natural. Do what you can do and never apologize for having to take a different road than everybody else. None of them know what experiences you have, what disabilities you will have to cope with. What gifts you might have hiding inside.

This is the end of the story of Coping With Dysgraphia. It only gets me to the middle of my architecture story, a story I still haven’t told fully; beginning, middle or end. That story will have to wait for another muse, another time. My parting thought on the subject of dysgraphia is, I wish I could remember what the subject of that term paper was that I refused to write way back when. When I was a sophomore in Garden City in 1978 flunking out of english class. I could write a whole book on the subject now with the tools we have today. I wonder what kind of story that would have been then if I could have simply been able to do what I do now?

Listening to The Hero’s Journey on the TED radio hour inspired me to put this story into words. Specifically it was the story of Ismael Nazario who was convicted of a crime and sent to Rikers as a teen. There but for grace go I. The difference that the color of your skin can make.