Mother

There is something about this introduction to This is Love that freakishly makes me think of my mother.


Introduction to the This Is Love podcast

Freakishly, in that I wonder if other people have similar flashes on the things their parents gave up for them? It’s not that my mom ever quantified her sacrifice for the children she had, at least not consciously or as an attempt to persuade. I know some people have had that experience, I’ve had the experience myself with other relatives. Our grandmother would tell us she was dying each year around Christmas, and oh, this might be your last chance to see me. Don’t you remember how I made time for you when you were growing up? We would laugh and roll our eyes, and then try to make time to visit at some point during the season.

But not mom, at least not when she was parenting us. Guilt never seemed to work for us. I remember distinctly her wanting us to clean our plates at mealtimes while I was still in primary school, and so she put a coin jar in the center of the table labeled for the starving children in other countries. We had a great laugh at that as we crammed food into the slot on the jar. That is the one time I remember her attempting to guilt us into anything and it failed, spectacularly.

When I was a teenager and could finally drive and own my own car, I would take long, meandering drives in the country, sometimes for several hours at a time, just listening to music. I’m not sure what I was looking for out there on the road. Release from the pressures of herding three other children around, most likely. On a few occasions mother grew concerned about my spending so much time alone, and so I invited her to come along on a drive with me, just so she could see what I was doing.

While we were out there together, me just driving aimlessly, we would talk. Mom and I could always talk. We’d talk for hours on the phone sometimes. I never could recall the particulars of any of our conversations, it was always small talk. Just impressions of concerns of the day, plans for the future. Musings about the days gone by. It is these times that come to mind when I listen to the story of the mother spider calling its children to itself, sacrificing herself to them so that they could survive. Feeding herself to them on purpose.

Mom was an artist before we children were born; or more precisely, before I was born. She left college to travel with her then-husband, my father, going overseas for the first time in her short life. I can imagine what her hopes must have been like at the time. Visiting places in Europe, possibly even going to Paris. She did talk to me about wanting to visit Paris, as I sat in vigil with her over the last months of her life. It wasn’t the first time we had talked about her young dreams, I know. I know because in those long drives as a restless teen she had told me of her dreams when she was a restless teen. Traveling. Painting. Exploring the world. I can picture her in Europe right now if I close my eyes, sipping coffee at a cafe near a river, trying to decide which scene deserved her artistic attention.

But that never happened. Instead she had me, and her husband didn’t prove to be much of a father, so she left him within six months of my birth. She married the man I called father for my entire life and eventually settled with him in the middle of the Kansas plains, pretty much as far away from the lights and glamour of Parisian culture as it is possible to get. She set about raising me and the three children that followed me, burying a miscarriage somewhere along the line. When dad’s wayward eye got him in trouble about the time I turned thirteen, she simply switched to the next person she thought could keep her children fed. And so on.

She worked her fingers to the bone at odd jobs as a single parent at the time that inspired this writing, when I was a senior in high school and then attending the local trade school. Two, three jobs at a time if required. She never complained, other than to say how tired she was. Never guilted us about what she gave up so that we could live. She just set about getting from where we were today to where we would be tomorrow, a progression in time that saw us all graduate high school. Some of us went on to college and all of us eventually had children of our own. She helped raise those children, none of us ever asking her if this was what she wanted to spend her life doing. Never once.

Until the end of last November, when her world crashed down around her. Stage four transitional cell carcinoma. Months to live. She could have gotten treatment. She could have still been here with us. She couldn’t pay for the treatment. She wouldn’t even dream of asking us to pay for it, and she didn’t want the government to pay for it. In some weird way, she thrummed her web, and we great mass of the living consumed her without even questioning why things had to be this way.

Now she’s gone. I have become the eldest of our little band of misfits, a natural leadership role that I never wanted and go to great lengths to avoid when I can. What form is the web that I’m now the center of? Will I be called to sacrifice myself to the greater good? Do I want that to happen? Do I have a choice? …And I can still see her youthful, hopeful face among the crowd that I envision along the banks of the Seine. Sipping coffee and deciding what to paint next. If I could tell her one thing now, what would that one thing be? Paint as if your life depended on it. Because ultimately it does.


I wrote this article shortly after mom’s death. At the time I was consumed by the dilemma of knowing that she was going to die months before it actually happened, but constrained by legalities, unable to shorten the time she suffered agonizing pain and loss of self-awareness as her body cannibalized her brain for a few more hours or days of life. By the same token, she was legally unable to ask us to help her end her own life when she decided she was ready to go, even knowing in some portion of her brain somewhere that she was indeed dying. Adding to my internal conflict of her suffering which we could only buffer by giving her drugs to render her unconscious, was the personal belief that she could have accepted treatment and not had to suffer and die this way. But the system works the way it works, and her refusal of treatment combined with Texas law preventing humane treatment for the dying resulted in a month long vigil that ended the way it was always going to end, with her death.

Mother’s suffering. The trauma of losing our mother in this way. The personal costs to health and welfare and the effect on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of being forced to watch her wither away this way unable to do anything to end it. The waste of it all will probably haunt me to the end of my days. I will not go out the way she did, if I have any say in it. The form her death took cheapens the near-flawless nobility of how she sacrificed herself for her children for years virtually without complaint. Without burdening her children with the weight of the crushed dreams of her youth.

Her noble sacrifice inspired my willingness to give my children as much room to become what they wanted as I could afford to give them. I did not want them to have to look back on a life that they spent doing things that they had no interest in doing, just so they could pay the bills each month. I wanted them to be able to look back on their lives and be thankful to have lived, the same way that I can because of her sacrifice. If only her kind of nobility were more common than it is, all children would grow up this way.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

This poem ran through my head for weeks as I watched my mother slowly fade away. As I watched my dad die. It is the only answer I have.

Dylan Thomas reciting his villanelle ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953
Copyright © 1997-2002 by The Academy of American Poets

(Yes, I realize that posting the poem here constitutes a probable breach of copyright. The widget that allows for embedding the poem does not function. I would happily have used that function if it worked. It would have been easier.)

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)


Join the world’s largest family tree

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. 

Terror

Facebook

The Mummy’s Hand got me banished from watching anything remotely horror themed when I was a child (Editor’s note, it was The Crawling Hand) I had nightmares of the hand chasing me several times. Weirdly enough, thunder and lightning don’t (and didn’t) bother me much unless I’m out in it.


2019. The big dogs were terrified of storms. I talked about the destructiveness of Mellow in Rescues.

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