Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why November?

I should probably start by saying that I'm not, particularly, a believer in luck, astrology or other similar things. I don't have a lucky number. I don't base or justify my actions on the alignment of the stars. If I believe in anything, it would be the inherent balance found in "regression to the mean". Beyond that kind of statistical paterning, I don't really believe much in a "grand design", mostly just "random chance".

That said, sometimes, the Universe makes it hard not to think that it's picked good and bad times of year for you. I have yet to detect a consistently good time. However, it's seemed that November is the month that the Universe has most frequently decided to test me with the adversity of death.

It started in the mid 90s. My family, as it had done pretty much every year of my life, to that date, had come together for Thanksgiving at my maternal grandparents' house.

It was like any other Thanksgiving, up to that point. My grandmother had put together another wonderful, if somewhat bland, Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone had a nice, chatty meal together and overindulged in Turkey, stuffings, relishes, casseroles and the like. Afterwards, everyone retired to the living room - the men to watch football and the women to chit-chat. Inevitably, one or the other of us would nod off, struck down by the mass-infusion of tryptophan that suffused the turkey we'd all overindulged in.

As the afternoon rolled on towards evening, my grandfather went to get his usual pre-dinner coffee. He tottered off to the kitchen, poured himself a hot cup, then returned to his over-stuffed Lazy·Boy. He set the coffee down. A short while later, he started making a "snorking" noise. I'd initially assumed that he was nodding off, again, and just snoring. However, it was a bit different a sound than usual. It became quickly apparent that it wasn't the usual. He continued to snork, stiffened, then lolled forward out of his Lazy·Boy and onto the floor. My parents, both trained RNs, rushed to where he'd fallen and started to render CPR. My grandmother watched in horror. I watched in fascination.

My parents screamed to me, "call 911". For the life of me, I couldn't understand the urgency of the request: somewhere, deep down, I knew that he was dead before he'd hit the floor. But, I zombie-walked to the phone out into the kitchen and called EMS. It was a very calm, detached call. I related the requisite information to them so they could send an appropriate response.

Then, I drifted back into the living room. My parents were still rendering CPR, but it was very clearly doing nothing. I noted that my grandfather's abdomen had become oddly swollen. I put on my coat and went out the front door to await the EMS crews.

Eventually, the EMS crews arrived. It was still fairly sunny for as late in the afternoon it was. Still, it was a very crisp, windy, fall day. I directed the EMS crew into the house and towards my grandfather. My parents stepped back to let the paramedics take over duties. My mom went to comfort my grandmother while my father fell into "clinician" mode as he related the events to the paramedics.

As my parents had done before, they rendered CPR. Eventually, they stopped and pronounced my grandfather. They got a gurney from the ambulance and carted him away. Both parents attended to my grandmother. I just sort of stood around in kind of a "fascinating: I wonder what's next" kind of mental state.

Within the space of a few days, we'd seen to his wake and funeral, and then life started to move on. Not once did I shed a tear. In fact, I don't think that I have specifically shed a tear for him, to date. And, it's not that I didn't love him. He and I spent a lot of my youth together. We'd take trips to Baltimore and Philly each year to catch various sporting events. Invariably, his awful sense of direction would get us lost. Even with all the time we'd spent and as good as our relationship was, it just didn't prompt a crying response.

It wasn't until more deaths and other, similarly traumatic events occurred that I noticed lack of affect as a recurrent pattern for me.

Last November 19th, as I was being driven from work to the Metro station by my friend, Alex, I received a phone call from Donna. She was very frantically emotional. She kept asking me if I was sitting down or if I could find a place to sit down. Clearly, something was wrong. However, my affect was squelching. So, all I could really respond was, "please get on with the news." She informed me that my mom was on the other line and that she was calling to say that EMS was in the process of taking my father's body away. Apparently, while she was in the kitchen fixing suffer, he'd suffered a heart attack and had expired quietly as she'd bustled about in the kitchen. 

I can't say that I found the news particularly shocking. For the last several years, my father's appearance had pained me each time I saw my parents at holidays and other get-togethers. Each time I'd see him, my father looked visibly older. Just that August prior, when Donna was hospitalized, my parents had come down to visit: my dad looked awful. He looked so old and tired. So, I can't say that I was surprised or shocked by the call.

Pretty much, the rest of the evening was a blur. It was an awful, rainy day and DC traffic was horrible. Normally, the train ride from my office back to my house takes at least seventy minutes. The drive-time is usually only about half an hour. Wanting to get on with things and head back to PA to be with my mother, I decided, "fuck it, I'll take the cab". Unfortunately, I got the world's worst cabby: no idea of the local roads and no GPS. Worse, he didn't really speak English all that well, so, he misunderstood my directions. After an hour of thrashing through traffic, going all the wrong ways to get around it, I finally yelled at him to pull over and let me out. An hour of thrashing about in traffic and rain and we'd traveled less than two mile's line-of-sight distance. Fortunately, my friend, Mike, lived only a couple miles away. I got ahold of him and he drove me back to my house in Alexandria.

Donna and I hurriedly packed and headed up the road. Somewhere near Frederick, Maryland, the driver's-side rear tire flattened. We pulled into the next service-station and aired up. Also bought a can of fix-a-flat, and headed up the road. We stopped, at intervals, to verify that the tire was staying inflated. It appeared to be (mostly) holding air, and we made the rest of the trip incident-free.

Arrival started a whirlwind of order-sorting. In all of the deaths of friends and relatives, over the years, I'd never been one of the immediate "survivors". I never quite realized just how much bureaucracy was involved in a death. My mom was busy dealing with her grief. Donna saw to her. I buried myself in tackling the bureaucracy.

The next day, we went to the funeral home to meet with the funeral coordinator and to view the body. My father had been very explicit in his funerary wishes. He wanted only to be cremated and he wanted no funeral. With death, he couldn't understand the point of wasting money on a corpse. Thus, we honored his wishes. Having dug through paperwork, the night before, I was able to help my mom furnish the funeral director with the relevant military service and insurance information so that the funeral home could take care of details on their end.

Those details sorted, we went into the next room to view the body. And, really, that's all it was: just a body. There was very much not a spark of life in it. I noticed the odd palor and the mottling about his ears and extremities. It was fascinating.

When my mom was done saying her goodbyes, I asked to be left alone to say my own. It took a while, but, I was actually starting to feel the urge to cry. Unfortunately, it had taken me such a long while to reach that point, that Donna had become worried and come looking for me. The interruption broke me out of my reverie. The tears, that had just started to well, quickly withdrew. At that moment, all I had was rage for the interruption. Since that time, I've not really cried or felt much in the way of emotion, loss ...I just don't quite seem to be able to feel.

This year's Thanksgiving holiday week, the Universe seems to be again conspiring to try to make me feel. Lana had been acting sort of out of sorts. I'd noticed, yesterday, that the lymph nodes in her neck were palpably swollen. This morning, they were more swollen still. I told Donna, "we're going to need to call the vet for an appointment, Monday". I then went out in the yard to clear one of the garden beds of this past year's plants.

As I was finishing up the clearing efforts - taking the uprooted plant stocks out to the rubbish heap - I heard yelping coming from the house. I rushed inside to find out what the noise was. Puckett had apparently bumped Lana the wrong way, eliciting the first yelp. The subsequent yelps were Donna trying to locate the source of Lana's pain. It seemed Lana wasn't going to be able to wait for a Monday appointment.

We called the vet and related the symptoms. They told us to bring her down. Got there, did the checkin and passed Lana off to the triage-nurse. Eventually, the duty-veterinarian called us to back to one of the normal examining rooms. We chatted briefly about options. He suggested we admit her for a few hours so they could run some tests, take some labs and administer some analgesics. I agreed to this and we did the pre-pay before leaving. $1000 lighter in the pockets, I drove home with Donna and awaited the veterinarian's call.

I fell asleep on the couch while I waited. Eventually, around 8pm, the vet called. Initial cytology on the lymph nodes wasn't looking good, but definitive tests wouldn't be back till at least Tuesday. Xrays had shown nothing wrong in the abdomen - where she'd previously appeared to be feeling pain - but had shown that she'd developed spondylosis. That was apparently the cause of the pain. The vet prescribed meds and we went over what the likely coming decisions were going to be.

Donna and I then drove down to pick up Lana. She was dopey from the pain meds, but otherwise in decent spirits. We went over the discharge papers with the desk staff and headed on our way home.

As I sit here typing this, I still don't know what's going to become of our dog. All I know is that another Thanksgiving time of year has come and brought sadness with it. I'm getting tired of it. I just wish I could feel something other than detached resignation.

So, for Thanksgiving, what am I thankful for? That this time of year is soon behind me. My hope is that this seeming pattern is soon behind us.

Friday, November 26, 2010

At least I can VPN in and work while Donna is off hunting black Friday deals...

So Very Cold

Ok. The bedroom wasn't actually that cold. When we stay at my mom's for the holidays, the bed's closer to the window when we're at home and Donna gets too cold if it's left open at night. So, invariably, she closes it and the room begins to get more and more stuffy. Still...

Even more reliable than Donna getting cold from sleeping under that window is Donna's propensity for stealing covers. She does it all year long - even in summer as our airconditioning struggles against the DC heat. Then I'm typically happy to be shut of any extra covers. But still... What is this unstoppable urge that women have to steal covers in the dead of the night???

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Another Successful Turkey-day

Donna loves to cook. She loves to make big, complicated meals. When it's just her and I eating, it's usually hard to justify the kind of effort and cleanup that such proclivities entail. So, occasions like Thanksgiving gives her a real chance to shine.

It doesn't come without real effort and hard work, however. Thanksgiving meal preparations are a multi-day affair. Before we left DC, she'd had to do some last minute marketing (going to farmers markets to source fresh food stuffs). She also mixed the doughs for the pie crusts she would be rolling-out once in Carlisle. She made a fresh loaf of challah bread to be used in the turkey-day stuffing and in a breakfast bread-pudding. Lastly, she did her whirlwind packing of all the cooking supplies (knives, specialty pans, etc.) she would need for this year's spread.

That was Tuesday. Wednesday, she made the pies. This year: two pumpkin pies and one pecan pie:


The pumpkin pies were made from freshly (home) processed pumpkin purée. The pecan pie (or, as my mom frequently refers to it, "peekin pie") was made from pecans she and I had freshly shucked and flavored with her homemade vanilla extract (vanilla beans steeped, for over a year, in Ezra-B 10 year old KSBW). Pies done, she cut up half the loaf of challah bread and made an awesome bread-pudding (also flavored with the homemade vanilla extract!):

Fresh Bread-pudding

I imagine that, when she gets around to it, she'll post the recipe(s) on her blog.

The turkey-day sweets out of the way, she began her preparations of the turkey. Now, there's just the three of us, so, we don't bother with a whole turkey. We just get a couple drumsticks and a small, half-breast from a local farmer. For three people, it still manages to turn out to be a lot of meat. At any rate, over the years, we've discovered that brining turkey's is the key to ensuring that they're extra moist and flavorful. Sourcing from a good, local farm also helps a lot.

Years previous, when she was preparing dinner for five (Mom, Dad, my grandmother and Donna and me), we usually did the (small) whole bird thing. This required putting an entire turkey into a brining bag and letting it sit, over night, in a cooler out in the garage. This year, with it just being two drumsticks and a half breast, it was only two, large resealable Ziplocks tossed in the fridge:

Salty bird the bags, that is

This morning, she got up and resumed preparations. Mom was scheduled to work at the nursing home and wouldn't be back till after 15:00. So, it was to be a late Turkey-day meal. Having stayed up the night before with the prep-work (and then some pre-vacation sewing!), Donna slept in till after 10:00. Wasn't long after that (and a slice of fresh bread pudding) that she got into the actual cooking phase. On the menu:

  • Brined turkey rubbed and stuffed with herbed-butter
  • hashed brussel sprouts with onions, garlic and bacon
  • fresh cranberry relish
  • horseradish mashed potatoes
  • herbed, baked stuffing
  • fresh, scratch-made biscuit
  • gravy

No, I don't have the recipes for any of it. Hopefully, she'll make a post on her blog detailing it all. All I can really do is document it all. In the end, this was what ended up on our table:

As per usual: an excellent spread

All in all, a great way to get back into a family holiday.

A Better Homecoming

Seems like the family's back in stride on the Thanksgiving thing. Last year was a bit haphazard, given that my dad had died just a week prior. Much of our thoughts were on processing the emotions of that event and taking care of the mountain of bureaucracy that death lays at the survivors' feet.

On Tuesday evening, Donna and I packed up supplies and our dogs into the family truckster and headed northwards. My mom still lives in the town I grew up in - Carlisle, PA. It's about 120mi northish of Alexandria.

In general, it takes us about three hours to get there on the major holidays: an hour (or so) to get past the northern interior suburbs of DC (i.e., past Bethesda/Rockville/Gaithersburg) and then another hour or so to cover the remaining distance. In other words, we spend about 50% of the total travel time covering just the first 30% of the trip's distance. I hate DC traffic.

We left around 19:30. We didn't go directly to my mom's house, but, instead, stopped at the Wegman's in Camp Hill to pick up some stuff Donna needed for the turkey-day meal. Afterwards, we dropped by Your Place to pick up some frozen strombolis to take back to DC (they're not especially great, they just taste like "home"). Since we'd arrived after 22:00 at the grocery store, all of the Wegman's prepared foods had already been packed up for the day. So, having only had breakfast, I opted to pick up an additional fresh/hot `boli to take to my mom's house to eat for dinner.

We left Camp Hill for the final leg of the trip to Carlisle. My mom lives north of Carlisle. Typically, when we go straight there, from DC, I take Route 34 all the way up from US-15. That wasn't really an option, given that we'd detoured to Camp Hill. The GPS told me I should take US-11 back to Carlisle. Wasn't in the mood to do that, so, I turned north on PA-114, instead. The GPS suggested I might want to take I-81. Again, wasn't in the mood to follow its instructions. Instead, I kept heading down PA-114 till we hit Wertzville Road.

Now, Wertzville Road is one of those twisty-turny back roads you find all over PA. It was great fun as a teenager in a car packed full of friends. As an adult in an SUV on a dark, windy night, it wasn't as much fun as I remembered. However, the memories of high-tailing it down that road made it a more enjoyable trip. Donna loved it because, being so off the beaten path, there was very little in the way of light pollution meaning that she could see the stars in a way you can't see in the suburbs of DC. The dogs? They mostly just sat in the back seat and farted.

We finally arrived at my mom's house around 11PM. We unloaded the truck and started settling in. I set down to eating my stromboli while Mom and Donna caught up and made plans for the week.

All in all, much better than the prior year's urgent drive to PA to be by my mom's side in the wake of my dad's death.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Good Wife?

There's a lot of TV programming I don't understand the point of. "The Good Wife" is one of those programs I just don't understand. I mean, when I saw the original commercials, it seemed like it was supposed to be some serial that was loosely based on the phenomena of politicians' wives that stick around even after the politician's been acused (and, frequently, proven guilty of philandering). Which, to me, didn't seem like much of a premise. But, now, the commercials seem like it's just some "women's drama" that is just holding on to a title without really having anything to do with the title.

Perhaps it would make more sense if I bothered to watch the show. Then again, nothing I've seen in the commercials is providing a compelling case for taking time out of my schedule to do so.

Life in IT

For better or worse, I've had a moderately successful career in IT. After nearly 15 years of working in the field, I've accrued a certain level seniority relative to my peers. Unfortunately, this means I'm generally in the position of being "the expert" on any number of technologies, tasks, etc. By itself, that isn't the unfortunate part. No, what's unfortunate is that I am generally charged with making advanced technologies more accessible to less experienced people. Even that isn't inherently problematic.

What's problematic is, much as seems to be going on with society at large, IT is being dumbed-down. New IT technologies are still frequently quite complex. Thus, the clueful amongst us get tasked with figuring it out for the less clueful. Unfortunately, what one used to be able to assume as knowledge-baseline, ten years ago, for more junior staff doesn't hold true, today. Truly, it seems like we're expected to be turning over ever more complex technologies to people that are less and less prepared to manage them. Thus, the documents we're tasked with writing requires more and more dumbing down. In many cases, it seems like I'm expected to write things so that a poorly-trained chimp can do them.

Don't get me wrong. For the most part, I like what I do. I get to work with some cool stuff. It just feels like, more and more, those that I am tasked with helping aren't ready (or, worse, particularly interested) in those things I'm tasked with helping them with.

As the years pass, I find that I am forced to more  frequently despair of the lack of expertise present or expected in people who's job it is (or should be) to know what the fuck it is they're doing

Monday, November 22, 2010

Psychological Studies Played Out in Real Life

In the field of psychology, there is a social phenomena sometimes referred to as the "bystander effect". This is the phenomena where people's actions - particularly their likeliness to help another person in distress - is inversely proportional to the number of other people present. At its most basic, the more people there are around when something goes wrong, the less likely someone is to help. A certain paralysis develops in large-groups. Each person present first thinks "someone else will help", and, sometimes, when no one steps up to help, it becomes "there must be a reason no one is helping - so, I won't either."

I got to witness this, first-hand, this past Saturday afternoon while attending the Penn State vs. Indiana University football game held at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. My wife and I were attending the game with a group of people. We were all seated up in row 9 in section 404 of the stadium (pretty much at the endzone line at the "home" end of the field). At one point, early in the first quarter, some guy came tottering, drunkenly, down the stairs to head to the section-exit. At some point, whether due to either simply tripping or losing his balance or due to having passed out due to extreme inebriation, the man fell.

Now, the stairs in this part of the stadium are fairly steep. So, when he fell, he tumbled quickly down about five seating-rows' worth of stairs. This made about ten, hard, rough concrete steps he fell down. Worse, at the bottom of his tumble, he pretty my landed on the right side of his face. As he lay there motionless, many onlookers sat about, looking aghast, but otherwise doing nothing. Even the people immediately adjacent to where he came to a stop did nothing but watch. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: no one was rushing off to find section attendants to render aid.

Realizing that no one was going for assistance, I bolted down the adjacent set of stairs and sought out assistance. I found a pair of PG County Police-auxiliaries standing out on the deck outside the section and directed them to the scene of the incident. I was the only person to seek them out. Even as we approached where the incident had occurred, they weren't sure what I was blathering about, as no one was paying particular attention to the situation. They did get to the man and helped him up as he came to.

Just boggles my mind that, during what seemed like an eternity, no one did anything. No one sought help. No one sought to render aid. No one really paid much in the way of attention beyond gawking. Whut. The. Fuck?