Missing the HIPPA Mark
September 20, 2020 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

I apologize for being unable to come up with my usual pithy yet insightful yet whimsical alliterative title for this post. If you can find a relevant alliteration to go along with "HIPPA," I'd love to hear it.

Here's an equation that I recently developed while sitting in a medical waiting room. See if you can solve it.

LTP + LTR + WRT + PI = X,

where LT is "Loud Talker", WR is "Waiting Room," and PI is "Patient Interview."

You've probably guessed already that the sum of those variables somehow relates to HIPAA*, the wonderful legislation that has resulted in the untimely deaths of millions of trees and trillions of pixels since its passage in 1996. I haven't the slightest idea of everything contained in HIPAA**, but if you're like me, you basically view it as something which is supposed to protect the privacy of our health information <cynicism>by making it inaccessible to everyone who really needs it.</cynicism>

Anyway, back to the amusing [to me] incident that led to this post. In the equation above, X is HIPPAv∞ or if you prefer, a violation of all known and unknown HIPAA privacy-related provisions. [Note: IANAL]

This equation may be used in a number of situations, but it was particularly applicable last week when, instead of taking the patient back to an office or exam room, a receptionist interviewed him in the 12'x12' waiting room full of other people in order to complete the medical information forms that should have been done ahead of the appointment. They were both loud talkers and there was no apparent reason for this approach as the patient was of sound mind as evidenced by an earlier cell phone call he took. He did try to do us a favor by turning to face the wall while he shouted into his phone, but the consequence was an amplification phenomenon that yielded the opposite result of what I assume he intended.

As a result, I (and everyone else in the room) had access to the following information about this patient:

  • his marital status
  • his medication list
  • his medical history, including recent surgeries
  • his symptoms for current visit to the clinic
  • his insurance.
Now, realistically, no harm was done. I don't know the guy, I can't remember his name, nor can I remember the details of any of the preceding data. It's really just the principle of the thing.

If you're ever in this situation, as the interviewee, I suggest developing a baby-is-sleeping-next-to-us inside voice, or asking that the conversation move to another room away from eavesdropping ears. Better yet, just do the dang paperwork before you arrive at the office. Otherwise, you might end up in a Seinfeld episode***.



*In doing my usual extensive research for this article, i.e. looking at one Wikipedia listing, I learned that the acronym I'm accustomed to using -- HIPPA -- is technically inaccurate and its usage really ticks off some of the bureaucrats. So, keep on using it.

**If you'd like to read it, here's the 349 page PDF in all of its inscrutable glory.

***I know, they're not still making Seinfeld eps. Just work with me here, OK?

Our Neighborhood Bobcat
September 15, 2020 3:24 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers will recall that I've previously written about the bobcat that frequents our neighborhood [see here and here]. Both of those reports arose from images captured on my trail camera, all of which were taken at night. I have never seen the bobcat during the day, although certain of our neighbors have reported seeing it in the early morning hours just before or right around sunrise.

That changed last Sunday. Debbie and I had returned home from eating lunch at a restaurant after church and had driven into the countryside a ways to release an armadillo that I trapped overnight (number 77, if you're keeping count). It shortly after 1:00 and I had just returned the trap to its spot in the back yard when a movement across the creek caught my eye.

I initially thought to myself whose pit bull is running loose over there? No one in the neighborhood has a pit bull. The animal disappeared momentarily, hidden by the trees lining the creek, but when it reappeared I instantly recognized it as a bobcat. And, of course, I pulled out my phone and started videoing.

Photo - Bobcat in our neighborhood

There are no other houses across the creek from our back yard, just a large green space bordered by the walking trail. The nearest structure is our neighborhood amenities center: a workout room, indoor pool, and a meeting room. The cat was meandering toward that structure.

I scurried out of the back yard, through the vacant lot next door, and across the low water crossing, hoping that I was right about the route the bobcat was taking. Sure enough, when I next caught sight of it, it was peering into the workout room. I couldn't see anyone inside through the tinted windows, but the cat was seemingly attracted to something (perhaps its own reflection?). At one point I could hear it yowl.

[And speaking of hearing things, the squirrels and birds in the trees above where the cat was strolling were extremely vocal in expressing their disapproval of its presence. The bobcat, for its part, paid them no heed. I was wishing for a dive-bombing mockingbird to enliven the scene.]

The feline continued its saunter along the perimeter of the building, stopping briefly to paw at a window. It eventually rounded a corner and laid down in the concealing shade of some shrubs.

As this scene unfolded, it occurred to me that I was pretty close to a wild animal not famous for its soft and cuddly nature. It could run faster than me; it could climb better than me; it had sharper teeth and claws than me. All I had was my superior intellect...the same intellect that brought me within spitting distance of a bobcat. So much for superior intellect. At the same time, it wasn't acting strange -- other than wandering around in the middle of the day* -- and other than giving me a glance or two, didn't seem to care about my presence one way or another. I decided I wasn't taking much of a risk after all.

My wildlife observation episode came to an end when a pickup drove by and startled the cat, which hightailed it back toward the creek where it disappeared into the grass. I suspect the bobcat has a den somewhere along the creek bed, and will continue to prowl the neighborhood. My only concern is when a wild animal like this gets too comfortable being in the presence of people, something bad will eventually happen...and it will be the bobcat on the losing end.

Well, anyway. I did splice together some of the video that I took, and you can watch it here in this relatively short (<2 minutes) clip. You can ignore the captions if you like; they pretty much are summaries of what I've written here.



*Bobcats are crepuscular animals, meaning that they're generally most active during the twilight hours -- around dawn and dusk. However, it's not terribly unusual for them to be active during the day, although that is more likely to be the case during the fall and winter months.

The $5,000 Meatloaf
September 12, 2020 7:51 AM | Posted in:

Graphic - Mock MPAA rating for this post

You know, before we retired and moved to the Texas Hill Country a few years ago, I saw only two medical professionals on a semi-regular basis: a dentist and an optometrist. However, now that I'm living a healthier, more stress-free life in a much slower-paced community, I have -- along with a different dentist and optometrist -- the following:

  • A primary care physician
  • A cardiologist
  • An electrophysiologist
  • An endocrinologist
  • An orthopedic specialist
  • A pharmacist that knows me by name
  • A periodontist/oral surgeon
  • A chiropractor.
Each of these new medical professionals have entered my world due to specific (and occasionally semi-serious) health issues. IOW, I'm not just filling out a doctor bingo card. I hate to say anything is inevitable, even if I sometimes (often?) do, but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that the inexorable advance of age is accompanied by the soothing pastime of lounging in sterile waiting rooms with bad artwork and old magazines, and nowadays with the additional enhancement of glasses-fogging masks.

I have greeted most of these new acquaintances with relative equanimity, perhaps by putting equal emphasis on the first third of the Serenity Prayer and the realization that some of the stuff is self-inflicted. But it's that last interaction that really grates my grits*.

Here's the deal. A couple of weeks ago, on a Friday evening, I was happily noshing on a slab of precooked meatloaf purchased earlier in the day from the market down the road. The market's name isn't important although any resident of the town we're living in will know exactly who I'm talking about. 

Halfway through the meatloaf -- which was quite tasty, by the way -- I bit down on what was probably a tiny piece of bone and split a tooth from top to bottom. 

For you dental aficionados reading this, it was the first bicuspid on the upper right, aka #4 in the UTNS [Universal Tooth Numbering System...which I just made up, but which totally should be a thing. Uh, OK. I just googled tooth numbering systems and there's at least three of them, and the most commonly used one in the US is the UNS or Universal Numbering System. I find the lack of specificity as to what, exactly, is being numbered to be distressing, as it could apply to everything from cheese to crescent wrenches. There's also a bit of hubris involved with dentists appropriating a Universal anything; it's not unlike we Earthlings crowning a Miss Universe when it's highly unlikely there are any other galaxies represented in the competition.] But I digress.

I knew immediately that a Very Not Good Thing had just occurred, even without prior experience in the area of devastated dental appendages. I also knew instinctively that my life would be very different AML (After Meat Loaf) than BML. And -- curse my unfailing perceptiveness -- I was right.

A broken tooth on a Friday evening doesn't really warrant a call to the emergency line at our dentist's office, even if I am freaked out about it. I go through the uncomfortable weekend self-medicating and chewing on the opposite side of my mouth, and call the office as soon as it opens Monday morning. They can see me that morning around 10:00 a.m., which would normally be miraculous but of course 10:00 a.m. also happens to be the time at which I can visit my mom in person at the locked-down assisted living facility for the first time in almost six months. Mom, I picked you.

They then offered an appointment for early afternoon the following day, which I readily accepted. The dentist confirmed the split, which interestingly runs parallel to the gum line. She is able to tease out half of the tooth but says the other half will require more of a surgical procedure, especially if I want to replace the resulting hole with an implant. The dentist recommended it as the best long-term solution with the least potential complications, other than a ruptured wallet.

Debbie and I had already discussed that possibility -- she's had one and recommended it -- so I was comfortable in agreeing with that approach. The office was then able to get me into see a well-regarded periodontist in Austin on short notice. My dentist told me that there was a possibility of getting the remainder of the tooth extracted AND the implant done in the same day, which sounded like an ideal solution.

Two days later, we drove to Austin for that appointment. Our trip coincided with a record-setting downpour -- the first significant rainfall in the area in two months -- which threatened to delay our arrival. However, we made it on time and I checked in at the front desk. It was there I got the news that my glass-half-empty perspective had prepared me for: they would not do the implant that day. In fact, they would not do the implant for four months.

As it turns out, an implant replacement of an upper tooth is quite problematic because the proximity to the sinus cavity means that there may not be enough bone mass in which to sink the anchor for the implant. So the periodontist performs a bone graft where the extracted tooth was, and gives it four months to bulk up by doing Crossfit or something. (I sorta got lost in the technicalities at that point.) And, actually, things could get worse. If my bone graft proves to be a lazy slacker, the surgeon will have to perform a "sinus lift" which I assume is like a face lift except more expensive and less likely to elicit insincere compliments. I won't describe how a sinus lift works because it's gross and we hope to avoid it.

After that somewhat depressing news, I sat in the waiting room fulfilling its intended purpose. Suddenly, a tremendous crack of thunder shook the building and the lights flickered off then came back on. I heard someone say that the backup generator had kicked in. Well, that's just great. Not only was the implant not going to happen today, but now there was a chance I would have to return to even get the extraction done.

That was not to be the case, as the storm passed quickly and I was escorted into the examination room and prepped by a very efficient dental assistant. A few minutes later, the periodontist arrived and immediately did his best to put me at ease. (For the record, this was my first dental surgery. I do have good teeth. But apparently not bone-crunching good.) He explained in detail the process he was about to undertake, and assured me that they would do everything in their power to not hurt me, and I gave him the same assurance.

"But first," he said, "I want to get a picture." I assumed that he meant an x-ray, but then he stuck a mirror in my mouth and holding it there with one hand, snapped an actual photograph with a digital SLR camera** in the other. He then got to work, enthusiastically describing what he was doing each step of the way. (For the record, in case you're reading this, doc, I wasn't fooled by your euphemistic reference to pain-killing injections as "dots.")

The extraction and bone graft was relatively quick and definitely non-traumatic, and I departed about an hour after arrival with a wad of gauze plugging the new hole in my mouth, but with nothing to plug the four digit hole in our bank account. Debbie drove home -- the rain had returned but let up pretty soon after we left -- and I tried to make sense of the several pages of post-op instructions.

During the past week, while I've had some discomfort, it's never devolved into outright pain. I'm was on a restricted diet of primarily soup and cottage cheese and scrambled eggs and other lukewarm/cold and mushy food, and the inability to drink hot coffee in the mornings was the worst part. However, I found that three lukewarm cups of espresso are an effective substitute, at least from a caffeination standpoint. And I'm still avoiding chewing anything on the right side of my mouth.

All things considered, this could have been much worse. Quick access to excellent healthcare, and the ability to pay for it are blessings that I don't take for granted. I'm very thankful for them.

However, I'm afraid it will be a long time before I can bring myself to forgive that meatloaf.

By the way, I really haven't given the oral surgeon and his staff the credit they deserve. Besides doing an excellent job, they were extraordinarily solicitous of my physical and emotional well-being. I actually got a phone call at home from the surgeon a few hours later to check on my status, and a couple of days later received a get-well-soon card signed by the entire staff. If you're in the Hill Country and need a good periodontist, I'll be happy to provide you with an unqualified recommendation.

*Don't ask me; I don't know what it means either.

**OK, sure...it could have been a mirrorless camera instead of an SLR. I wasn't exactly focused on that detail.

Speedo in Saba -or- Island Exposure
September 7, 2020 9:15 AM | Posted in: ,

In an earlier post I alluded to an episode in my life involving a Speedo swim suit and an embarrassing situation. Looking back, I realize that, when considered together, those two references are redundant but it's too late to undo history.

Sitting at home with little to do other than recuperate from minor oral surgery -- another story for another time -- I figure now is as good a time as any to share the details of one of the more traumatic episodes in my life. And that's saying something given that I once watched a wheel roll past down the street past my car, only to realize that it was MY wheel.

In 1986, Debbie and I, along with two other couples, rented a house on Jamaica, in a town called Runaway Bay, situated between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. I mention these details not because they're relevant to the story, but only to give you the impression that I'm a seasoned and sophisticated traveler.

Actually, I'm mentioning this particular trip because it was the first time for us to snorkel in the ocean and that experience eventually led to scuba training. It was also the first time for me to wear a Speedo swim suit. I can't recall why I decided to do this, nor whether anyone else in my household thought it was a good idea. But I did, and it was a liberating experience...at least when no one else was around.

For those of you who have met me in person, I apologize for the mental images.

By the way, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred during our trip; I should have taken that as a sign.

Fast forward to 1989. Debbie and I are now certified scuba divers and have been on dive trips to the islands of Cozumel and Bonaire. That year, in early July, we found ourselves diving off the coast of the volcanic Caribbean island that could have inspired the King Kong movies: Saba.

If you're not a diver there are few reasons you should know about Saba (pronounced Say-bah). The nearby islands of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten and Saints Kitts and Nevis are more popular tourist destinations than the five-square-mile Saba, whose primary attractions are the abundant and varied sea life and underwater pinnacles surrounding it.

The island has only one main road, imaginatively referred to as "The Road," the construction of which was a feat of engineering so impressive that it warrants its own Wikipedia page. It connects the airport on the northeast end of the island to the port on the southwest end, and even though that's a distance of less than 3 miles, The Road is almost nine miles in length, which gives you an idea of the windiness of the drive. Very few residents now own vehicles, and car rentals weren't an option when we visited. So, we relied on the inexpensive and efficient taxi services for transportation.

We were assigned an affable driver named Anthony (Debbie remembers; I don't) who would be our guy for the week. He would be responsible for getting three of us and our gear from our guest house in the village of Windwardside down to the port near the capital city of The Bottoms where the dive boats departed, and back again, as well as any other day trips we wanted to take. 

Now, scuba diving is a gear intensive undertaking and the taxi minuscule and so Anthony sometimes had to make two trips each way, one to transport our stuff and another to take us. It was only about five miles from the port to Windwardside, but it took almost an hour for the round trip. These details are important; you might want to take some notes.

I think it was the first full day we were there -- and I know it was a Sunday -- we finished our second dive and were ready to return to our lodging. It was mid-afternoon and after dropping some of our gear in the boat for the next day's dive, we waited for Anthony to arrive and take us home. 

We waited...and we waited...and...

We never learned why Anthony was late. Perhaps the logistics weren't not yet worked out that early in our stay. It would be years before we had a cell phone so we couldn't call anyone, even if we had a number to call, which we didn't. In any event, several hours elapsed before he and his little taxi appeared.

If this doesn't sound like an awkward situation, it's only because I've omitted a few details. To wit...

When I dive in water warm enough that a wetsuit isn't necessary, I wear a swimsuit underneath what's called a dive skin, which is basically a thin lycra jumpsuit. Dive skins provide a bit of warmth -- not as much as a wetsuit, but they're much less bulky -- and also protect against coral scrapes and jellyfish stings. Because they're tight-fitting, I elected to wear a Speedo under mine that day. When we got off the boat, we let the dive guides have everything that needed to be rinsed before the next day...and that included my dive skin. And since we were told our ride would be waiting for us at the dock, I didn't even have a shirt, just a pair of flip-flops. I might have also had a cap.

So, we're hanging around the dock, and I'm not feeling too out of place yet, because after all, this is a popular dive destination and while I might look ridiculous in my own right, I'm still not incongruous. That was to change.

After a while, we grew weary of standing around, and we walked a short distance toward town and sat at the edge of a large open paved area...sort of a public square kind of place, where we could watch a few passers-by.

We soon noticed that the "few" were becoming the "not so few," and growing toward "the many." Crowds of people seemed to be meandering in from the town and congregating in that open area where we sat. Even worse, they were a very well-dressed crowd, almost as if they'd all come from church services. Also, the majority of Sabans are Black; some have ancestors who were brought to the island from Africa as slaves.

It's about then that the live music begins, and many in the crowd begin to dance. 

So, let's recap, shall we? There's a large gathering of well-dressed Black people gathering for a dance a few feet from where an almost-naked, terribly white guy is sitting. Did you ever have that dream where you find yourself in the crowded hall of your high school and you realize you have on nothing but underwear? Well, this was worse, because it was really happening.

As it turned out, this was a weekly event on Saba, and we just happened to be hapless party crashers. Fortunately, Sabans are a friendly and hospitable lot, and while nobody offered me a suit jacket, neither did they report me to the authorities. At least the music was catchy.

Anthony finally showed up a few hours after we expected him, and we made it back to our lodging in time for supper. I don't recall the fate of the Speedo, but I'm pretty sure I never wore it unaccompanied again.

Despite all of this, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Saba, I recommend you do so. It's a beautiful and fascinating place, and not at all the clichéd and hedonistic Caribbean resort destination. Also, you'll be able to say that you flew into one of the ten scariest airports in the world. (Debbie and I have actually flown into three of the ten and lived to tell about them.)

Photo - My safari look; no speedo
Me on the return trip home, taken on the island of Sint Maarten. I know it's a temptation,
but don't bother undressing me with your eyes; there's no Speedo.
Note: As I was typing the title of this post, I began to doubt that I actually knew how to spell "eager," because it looked weird. In my defense, we just got a new Nespresso machine and I'm trying out a fortissio lungo, which is Italian for "guaranteed to make you not sleep for two days and to question the spelling of common English language words."

My buen amigo and his fetching wife have a beautiful home on South Padre Island (that's at the southern tip of the Texas Gulf Coast for you non-Texans), mere footsteps away from Laguna Madre, aka "the Bay" for purposes of this post. I could spend a lot of words on Laguna Madre because it's one of the true natural wonders of Texas; suffice it to say that it's >100 miles in length, not very wide, and is quite shallow. It's also a sail- and kite-boarder's paradise, thanks to its flat waters and generally reliable and ample winds.

If you stroll down the street where my friend lives, and peer into the open garages along the way, you might see a car parked inside...but it's more likely that the garages are packed with sailboards and sails and all the gear that go along with this equipment-intensive sport. And, as far as I can tell, most of the owners of said garages and equipment appear to be my age or older. Don't read anything into that observation, at least not for a while.

My friend and I have been trading texts about the latest sailing conditions in the Bay, which he describes as epic. Yesterday, for example, winds were sustained at around 30 mph, gusting to almost 40 (or, as we used to say in West Texas, mildly breezy). Of course, he speaks in terms of knots, only resorting to miles per hour when conversing with folks of childlike understanding, like me.

Aside: Surely you're aware that a sailboat, sailboard, iceboat, etc. can glide at speeds exceeding the actual wind speed. It's all due to physics, calculus, angle of momentum, angels' wings, and the dark arts, but it's true. Feel free to look it up.

His excitement about those conditions and desire to share them with me brought back memories from last year when we visited SPI and I got back on a board for the first time in decades. And therein lies the tale.

But first, some context.

Debbie and I learned to windsurf in the mid-1980s at a small body of water called Moss Creek Lake, near the West Texas burg of Big Spring (only tobacco-chewing residents with missing teeth are allowed to un-ironically refer to it as "Big Springs"). We enjoyed it enough to eventually buy our own boards, and when record-setting rainfall a few years later filled a big playa lake between Stanton and Big Spring, we were able to do quite a bit of sailing before evaporation made the water too yucky. I've previously written about an adventure on that body of water.

Once that playa lake became un-sailable, the boards and sails went into storage and came out only once in the ensuing decades. However, as with falling off a bicycle, once one learns to windsurf, one never forgets how competent one believed oneself to be, despite all facts to the contrary.

So it was with completely unwarranted confidence that I agreed to let my friend rig up a board for me to try out on the Bay. 

The wind that afternoon was less than 20 mph which, if my calculations are correct, made it still in excess of my capabilities. The sail my guru chose for me was postage stamp-size, the sailboard equivalent of training wheels on a quadracycle. IOW, no one could possibly fail to handle such a sail, even in gale force winds. 

The board itself was a floater, meaning that it was designed to accommodate a hippopotamus without submerging. Between the teensy sail and the huge board, only a consummate screwup could, you know, screw it up.

We hauled the gear to the water's edge and I climbed aboard. As I hauled the sail up for the first time since Reagan was president, I was overcome by that old familiar feeling: "I'm gonna die out here!" Keenly aware of my friend's watchful eye, I nevertheless pulled the boom toward the wind and the board leapt into action, like a stallion too long in the pen.

Miraculously, I managed to remain upright as I raced across the Bay. I leaned back against the wind, trying to balance my body weight against the pull of the wind-filled sail, and skimmed the  surface of the water until I grudgingly deemed it time to turn around. (This is what sailing on flat water is, basically...back and forth, back and forth, back and...well, you get the picture. It is more exciting than it sounds, though.)

Now, try to stay with me here, because I'm going to move pretty fast. There are two methods to turning a sailboard. One is called "tacking" and the other is called "jibing" (or "gybing" if you're snooty). I'm not going to explain the differences between the two techniques, primarily because I don't know what they are. I do know that tacking is much easier than jibing. So, of course, I try a jib. I immediately succeed in falling. And not just falling, but falling so that the sail is on the wrong side of the board and the board is still pointed the wrong direction and the wind seems to be getting stronger.

Against my better judgment -- and, really, I have no better judgment -- I insist on trying to do things the right way, by getting back on the board and hauling up the sail and attempting another tack. The results are the same, and I repeat this insanity multiple times before resorting to the ultimate windsurfing ignominy: standing in the water (it's only chest deep) and manually turning the board around and putting the sail where it should be and just starting over. I now remember that I've always hated windsurfing.

But now I'm ready to head back to shore, and this is where the fun really begins. I realize that despite my mental reminder to do so when I first got on the water, I neglected to memorize exactly the spot that I departed from. I was far enough from the shore that everything looked the same. Also, I had somehow drifted downwind from where I thought I needed to be. I know, I know; how is it possible that someone with such considerable sailing skills could end up in this situation? What can I say? I have a gift.

I finally pick out a spot on the horizon that looks vaguely familiar -- I'm guessing I'm about forty miles from shore (later I learned it was more like 400 yards, but that's still a really long way, and I'm not wearing my glasses) -- and start heading that way. 

I'm fighting the wind the whole way, and it's taking its toll on my strength. I finally get close enough to the shore to recognize...nothing. Except I recognize enough to know that I have no idea where I am, relative to where I need to be. I could be north of it. I could be south of it. I could be in another time zone. But, guess what? I'm too tired to care anymore. I let the wind carry me close to shore, where I drop the sail and paddle the rig to a dock in back of a home where I hope I can get my bearings.

I'm floating in the water like a bedraggled lily pad after a hurricane (sorry), unrigging the sail so I can try to get everything onto the dock and then try to figure out where I am, when a man comes out of the house and warily approaches me.

"Uh...are you OK?" he asks, obviously knowing the answer. "Can I help?"

"Well, I've managed to get lost and there's no way I'll ever be able to get found by getting back on this board so, yeah, I sorta need some help."

With his assistance, I get the rig up onto the dock. At that point, I notice several people on a balcony next door watching me with barely concealed mirth. I mentally run back through my extensive list of embarrassing moments and thereby take comfort in knowing that at least I'm not wearing a speedo and nothing else. (That's another story for another time. And perhaps something stronger than an espresso.)

"Uh...my friends have no idea where I am and I don't have a way to contact them. Do you mind if I borrow your phone?"

The Good Samaritan produces a cell phone and I dial Debbie's number. And, of course, not recognizing the number, she doesn't answer. I don't remember anyone else's number. I'm totally, absolutely alone, and will have to survive on my wits and skills. 

I do remember the street where our friends live, and when I tell the man that, he says "oh, you're only about five or six blocks away from there." Well, so much for my wilderness experience.

I get his permission to leave the rig in his front lawn and start the Windsurfing Walk of Shame back to where my friends are living it up with tea and crumpets, completely oblivious to my desperate situation. After what seems like an hours-long trek -- sure, it's only six blocks, but they're long blocks, plus there's no straight shot to where I'm going, so it's the equivalent of like, ten blocks or even more. It's horrible! -- I drag myself up to the front of the house where everyone makes a big deal over my ordeal by laughing only behind my back.

We pile into my pickup and make the two minute drive back to where I had landed, and load everything up. Everything after that is a haze, although I do remember not being able to move the next day. It was quite an adventure.

I can't wait to do it again.


in·ev·i·ta·bil·i·ty
/iˌnevədəˈbilədē/
noun: inevitability; plural noun: inevitabilities 
the quality of being certain to happen
"there was an air of inevitability about the outcome"
You know how when you're sitting in your recliner watching Netflix and eating roasted, lightly salted mixed nuts, and you drop one and it lodges between the cushion and the arm of the chair, and you know -- you just know -- that if you reach down to retrieve it, the outcome will not be retrieval at all, but the result will be that the nut will simply drop lower into the figurative bowels of the chair, and will be unreachable by human appendages without a ridiculous amount of effort, such as getting out of the chair and removing the cushion? That, my friends, is a perfect picture of inevitability.

So it is with running shoes nowadays. You search the world over* for the perfect running shoes to complement your perfect running style and perfect feet and toes, and when you find them, you think to yourself "I should buy about fifty pairs of these shoes so I'll always have them." But, of course, you don't, and...inevitably...when you return to order a replacement pair, they've been "upgraded" into a completely unrecognizable configuration, with the only remaining common characteristic being the name and a hole where you stick your foot, plus a new version number, as if you're purchasing software for your tootsies.

I've experienced this phenomenon countless times over my running "career." I'm a New Balance guy and have been for decades. I started out in the Eighties with Adidas but soon found that the stability and cushioning that NB is known for better suited my joints. I've stuck with them even though nowadays I wear rigid orthotics that minimize if not downright negate those benefits as they accrue to a specific brand of shoe.

Also, I started buying so-called trail shoes about a dozen years ago, after we moved into a new neighborhood on the edge of town in Midland, and I ran on the surrounding unpaved ranch and oilfield roads. I've stayed with that style even though nowadays I rarely run anywhere but on paved roads and trails. They seem to have more durable soles and I like the traction on wet, hilly streets...something I never had to think about in Midland.

One might think that trail shoes probably aren't as susceptible to the year-to-year model changes as "normal" running shoes which are lighter and more favored by serious runners. One would be mistaken in thinking that, at least where New Balance shoes are concerned. A NB shoe model has a life span of a gypsy moth. OK, I don't know how long gypsy moths actually live, but I'll bet it's not very long.

The last pair of trail shoes I bought had the awkward and oxymoronic name of "Fresh Foam Hierro V4." Hierro is Spanish for iron, which doesn't seem to play well with the phrase Fresh Foam, which in turn evokes shaving cream. Regardless, it was a great shoe, with a built-in sock liner instead of a tongue. That feature added to its comfort, as well as providing an effective seal around the ankle to keep bits of gravel out of the shoe. The downside was that it took a while to get the shoe on and off, but nobody who was serious about triathlons would wear a trail shoe anyway so the extra transition time from bike to run wouldn't be a factor. Uh, I'm getting into the weeds here, aren't I?

Anyway, I wore the v4s for at least a year before I wore them out, and I fully intended to buy another identical pair. Well, guess what? Somewhere around the end of 2019 (aka, When Life Was Perfect In All Meaningful Ways Compared To 2020), New Balance murdered phased out the v4 and introduced the v5.

The new version has reverted to the traditional tongue in place of the sock liner, and the lacing system is kind of funky. (That's a technical term of art in the running shoe design business. Probably.) But the most dramatic departure from the essentially traditional look of the v4 is the addition of a...a...an appendage, for lack of a better description, to the heel of the shoe.

Here's a clever visual comparison of the v5 to the preceding generation (top):

Photo - comparison of the version 4 and version 5 of the New Balance trail shoe

Someone at New Balance apparently thought it would be cool to add a spatula to the heel of the v5, and it's even weirder looking in real life than in these photos. It's purpose is unknown, to me anyway. One reviewer felt that it provided a copious crash pad, in particular when running downhill. Another reviewer lauded the look of the shoe, although his acknowledgement that most of the compliments he received came from children under the age of nine seems like a case of being damned with faint praise. And yet other reviewer -- me -- describes it as the product of an illicit relationship between an appendix and a clown shoe, with the defining characteristic being a hilariously useless bit of footwear anatomy.

Now, lest you think I'm a complete curmudgeon (I am, by the way), I've run in the shoes for a month or so and find them perfectly fine for my purposes and low standards for performance. The shoes are comfortable for my usual sub-five-miles-at-a-limping-snails-pace workouts, the Vibram™ soles are pleasingly grippy, and I have yet to step on my own heel, despite the gigantic trailing rudder. 

That said, I'd be lying if I said I haven't contemplated performing a rudderectomy on the shoes with a box cutter, but I'm fearful that the shoe elves at NB have somehow built in a failsafe mechanism that will cause them to collapse in a steaming, toxic heap of shoe slag if the appendage is fooled with.

The saving grace is that the disappearance of this disturbing design development is, well, inevitable.

*Fun fact: there are at least 50 albums with almost 30,000 lyrical phrases that include "search the world over." We are living in the best of all possible worlds (thank you, Kris Kristofferson, for those additional lyrics) when such information is literally at our fingertips.
Editor's note: The Editorial Board here at the Gazette has grudgingly come to accept that rudimentary animations in the form of gifs -- pronounced with a soft "g" -- must be tolerated, much as one tolerates the annoying-but-inescapable social behavior of toddlers and politicians. That said, the Board has put strict limits on the use of these crude illustrations in order to maintain the journalistic credibility of this publication. Sadly, the author of the following post has chosen to blatently disregard these limits. Please accept our apologies, and know that we condemn such insolence in the strongest of terms.

Author's note: Ha!

Hey, you guys...there's really not very much interesting going on around here nowadays, so I've had to resort to manipulative creative approaches in order to transform the prosaic into the phenomenal.

Time-lapse photos of a plant wilting in the heatFor example, remember when I was telling you about how hot our courtyard gets during the day? Of course, you do. Well, just to reinforce that fascinating story, I've enlisted one of our resident plants -- whose name I've forgotten -- to reenact the deleterious effects of said heat. You can see the result via a mesmerizing time-lapse sequence, over to the right.

By the way, the creation of this gif took an embarrassingly large amount of time and effort; I trust you appreciate the lengths I go to in order to educate and entertain.

As long as we're in the courtyard, at least mentally, I want to talk with you about what goes on out there in the middle of the night. Well, almost nothing, to be honest. But the little that is happening is a bit creepy. 

I've got my trail camera set up to take a photo every five minutes, 24/7, whether anything moves or not (it's also simultaneously configured to capture video if something does move). Each morning, I review the pictures from the previous day and night, an exercise that takes less time than you might expect given that nothing generally happens.

However, I have noticed that at some point in the wee hours of the morning, something emerges from beneath the flagstones, something tiny but whose eyes reflect the infrared flash of the camera and appear as tiny pinpricks of light in the darkness. Take a look at what I'm talking about:

Animated gif of tiny frogs whose eyes shine in the dark

These creatures appear like clockwork every night, and I've concluded that they're tiny frogs. (They could also be spiders but I refuse to contemplate that possibility as it ratchets up the creepiness factor to unacceptable levels.)

Warning: Snakes Ahead

(The preceding is presented as a public service to those readers with a abnormal perfectly understandable aversion of our neighbors of the serpentine persuasion. If you fall into this category please seek therapy click here to jump to some squirrel-related stuff.)

A few days ago, Debbie was in the back yard testing the sprinklers in one of our flowerbeds, which actually doesn't have any flowers, but is filled with big liriopes. A movement caught her eye and she discovered a small snake threaded through the leaves of one of the plants, apparently enjoying the impromptu shower.

She texted me (I was in the house doing something important, like taking a nap) and I grabbed my DSLR with a macro lens and took a few photos. I couldn't identify the species but she had an educated guess (which turned out to be correct, of course). We posted one of the photos to the Central Texas Snake ID Facebook Group, which has become one of our daily references, and the experts that administer that group identified it as a western coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus).

Coachwhips are nonvenomous, beneficial snakes that prey upon other lizards, amphibians, and varmints such as rats and mice. They will also eat other snakes...including venomous varieties such as rattlesnakes. In other words, they're good neighbors.

Ours was only 18" in length, but coachwhips can grow to be six feet or longer. As their common name implies, they are extremely fast snakes. They are shy and will flee when approached, but if cornered and/or handled, they won't hesitate to bite. Again, they're not venomous, but nobody wants a snake bite, right?

Following are a couple of the photos I took of the water-beaded coachwhip.

Photo - Western coachwhip among the leaves of a liriope
Photo - Western coachwhip among the leaves of a liriope

The little guy posed patiently for photos and admiring comments from onlookers, then disappeared under the plants after the water turned off. Debbie spotted it the next morning in almost the same location. We assume that it's dining on the tiny frogs that inhabit the back yard (and, possibly, the front courtyard...as we've already discussed above).

Relax: No More Snakes

Now, onto to last matter, and we welcome back those of you who chose to skip the preceding fascinating content.

We've got about eleventy billion squirrels in our neighborhood. As I've mentioned before, despite being surrounded by pecan trees, and living in a neighborhood named after pecans, we never get any because the squirrels harvest them all. But that's not what I want to tell you about. 

If you have squirrels around you, you've probably heard them on occasion chattering in the trees in a state of apparent alarm or anger. Sometimes their diatribes are directed at other squirrels (hey, you &#%^$^, that was MY pecan!) but they also seem to raise a general alarm when something threatening is nearby.

I was in our front yard when I heard this kind of commotion coming from an oak tree. The squirrel making the noise was fairly quivering with disapproval of...something. My first thought was that it had spotted a snake in the lawn, or even in a tree, as rat snakes are fairly common around here and they are amazing climbers. So, I walking into the grass beneath the tree where the squirrel was still expressing its displeasure, but I saw nothing. 

I looked around, still seeing no threat, and was about to go back inside, chalking up the squirrel's theatrics to inscrutable squirrel behavior, when I glanced up in a tree about 25' away. Perched there in the fork of two big limbs was a rather good-sized hawk, and the raptor was the obvious target of the squirrel's alarm. 

I found the tableau amusing, as the hawk had its back turned to the distraught squirrel, as if to say "I know you are but what am I" or something equally childish.

Animated gif of a squirrel in one tree and a hawk in another

I created a short video to capture what I'm now referring to as the Early Squirrel Warning System. Be on the lookout; it's coming to your neighborhood if it's not already there. 




Hey, y'all...is it hot where you live? This is the time of year where we resurrect General Sheridan's quote about preferring to live in Hell and rent out Texas, which makes a lot of sense until you wonder just who, exactly, would be willing to rent Texas during August?

Alert Gazette readers will recall that a couple of months ago Debbie and I watched a Texas spiny lizard dig a nest in our front courtyard, lay eggs, and then cover the nest. Well, we're at the front end of the normal range of time in which those eggs should be hatching, but I have to admit that I'm not too optimistic about the prospects for having tiny lizardlings frolicking about.

I set up a trail camera on a tripod and pointed it at where the nest is located, under the assumption that when (if?) the little guys dig their way out, the movement will result in the camera recording both videos and still photos of the action. The camera is set up to capture the date, time, and ambient temperature at the time images are captured, and as you can see below, we're dealing with some rather extreme environmental variables:

Comparison of temperatures - 87 degrees around noon vs 132 degrees 3 hours later

I realize that the camera's readings are much hotter than the actual air temperature, but I also believe that the bare dirt is absorbing a significant amount of heat for a few hours each day. I doubt that the temperatures a few inches underground, where the eggs are resting, reach anywhere close to 130º+, but even twenty degrees cooler might still be too hot.

I did find this article about incubating lizard eggs and it confirms that desert-dwelling lizard eggs will hatch in higher temperatures, which seems obvious, but its reference to "92 [degrees] or higher" is not altogether reassuring. 

As an aside, the article does describe the phenomenon whereby the sex of the hatchlings of some species varies with the temperatures in which they're incubated. For a leopard gecko, a range of 80 to 86 degrees will result in mostly females, while temperatures between 86 and 92 gives mostly males. But it gets really interesting here: if incubated at 92 to 94 you will get females that have bad tempers and are infertile. These are called hot females. [You can insert your own joke here if you're brave enough.]

So, I guess I'll give things another week or so and see how they play out. I suppose bad-tempered lizard babies are better than none at all. I'm pretty sure I couldn't tell the difference.

Speaking of Texas spiny lizards, take a look at this photo and raise your hand when you see it.

Texas spiny lizard well-camouflaged on a tree

Those lizards are amazingly well-adapted to camouflage themselves on the rough bark of oak, pecan, and cedar elm trees. In fact, you could go so far to say that they are veritable masters of disguise, which is evident when this photo is enlarged.

Texas spiny lizard wearing false mustache and glasses
My Discover card expired recently and when I popped over to their website to request a new one, I discovered (ha!) that I could choose from about 150 different designs.

My initial thought was "well, this is sorta lame," the same reaction I have to folks who order checks decorated with puppies and hummingbirds (the exception being your puppy-and-hummingbird checks which are totally awesome). But as I scrolled through the design choices, I found many to be attractive, and I began to seriously contemplate an important question: what, exactly, do I want my credit card to say about me?

It would have been a simple matter to choose a design celebrating a sports team or a university or my home state, but all of those things are clichés, and I'm anything but. (Feel free to nod your head in agreement.) So I passed on the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, Texas A&M University (still...gig 'em), and the beautiful flag of the Great State of Texas...and landed instead on...the blank cassette tape. It is, frankly, a design of genius in its simplicity and realism, and it spoke to me in unmistakeable if vaguely hissing tones.

Some of you might have been born too late to enjoy the golden era of mixtapes, but I wasn't, and I made scores of them, in many different genres, via my Kenwood stereo setup comprised of a double tape deck capable of recording songs from vinyl (and later from a CD) or dubbing from a second cassette tape. So, I chose the blank cassette design option, and within a few days had it firmly in hand, ready to let it tell the world who, exactly, it was dealing with. Only...

Now I had another problem. The blank label on the cassette image screamed silently. Nobody in their right mind had an unlabeled mixtape (unless they were trying to hide something from their parents, or so I'm told). Sure, when I used the card in a restaurant, almost without exception, the server remarked on the cool design. But I could read in their eyes the judgmental question: are you really so unimaginative that you can't label a mixtape? 

I can no longer live with that unspoken question, and so now I will choose, once and for all, a label for my mixtape Discover card that will provide the authoritative answer. Only, I'm not sure how to do that.

I admit it; this is all about impressing whoever is running the card through the reader, which, 99% of the time, is a server in a restaurant or a club. But if I'm to truly pander to those servers, I need to tailor my fake musical message to the venue, right?

For example, say I'm in a jazz club. This might be a good choice...

Photo - credit card labeled 'The Essential Dave Brubeck'

But if I'm out for a night of two-stepping at, say, Luckenbach, Brubeck won't cut it. I need...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Viva Terlingua - Jerry Jeff Walker'

On the other hand, what if I'm in a blues club. Jerry Jeff and friends are awesome, but not authentically bluesy. So, this might be the right ticket...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Painkiller - Tommy Castro'

But, we're not always slumming, so to speak. Sometimes we frequent classy joints, with tablecloths and four spoons per place setting, and tuxedoed waitstaff. They demand better...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Mozart'

But, on the other other hand, it's more likely that we're eating Tex-Mex in a downtown San Antonio restaurant, and el mesero can better relate to...

Photo - credit card labeled 'Pistolas y Leyendas - Vanessa del Fierro'

So many choices...so many scenarios to consider. It's enough to make you pay cash.

In the end, I have to be true to myself, and let the server judgments fall where they may. Here's the real me. Let it be said; let it be written.

Photo - credit card labeled 'Disraeli Gears - Cream'

Although...now that I think about it...I really like Santana, and Corb Lund has recorded some great stuff lately, and The Mavericks are totally awesome, but George Strait really is The King, except that I also have an Elvis Presley "Best Of" album that exudes royalty, and Sinatra impresses everybody, and boy did Emerson, Lake & Palmer rock (although that could have been the brownies talking)...I wonder if a pencil will work?

Dream Sequence
August 1, 2020 2:45 PM | Posted in:

It's an indisputable fact that the most boring thing one can bring to a conversation is a detailed description of one's dream. Sure, that dream sequence involving Scarlett Johansson, a badger, and a NutriBullet smoothie machine created a permanent new neural pathway on your brain, but even your most fevered and fervent description of that dramatic episode will never fail to glaze the eyes of even your most faithfully forbearing friend. 

Dreams are the ultimate personal experiences and should not, under any circumstances, be shared with others.

But, let me tell you about mine, because they're really neat.

So, I'm in a desert somewhere, possibly in West Texas, mi patria, and I see a massive flying creature -- probably a hawk, possibly an eagle, but definitely not a pterosaur, because my dreams are realistic -- cruising overhead. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a tiny bird appears above the gigantic one, and it dives down to attack it. 

Mere words can't adequately describe the sheer pathos and drama of this scene, so I've brought my not inconsiderable artistic skills to bear to provide you with a completely realistic reenactment:

A dramatic reenactment in gif form

[Ed. - Yawn. Who among us hasn't seen this exact interaction between a mockingbird and a hawk?]

You're probably thinking, I've seen this interaction happen MANY times in the past, between a mockingbird and a hawk. Granted...but wait! The little avian attacker actually alights atop the big bird and rests there, triumphantly, for an instant, then launches itself back into the air and rapidly descends toward where I'm standing in observational awe.

This is where it gets...unusual. The bird isn't flying, exactly; it's more like it's...floating...in a gentle downward spiral, and as it gets closer to earth, I see that it's transformed into a turtle. A turtle with glider-like wings. See, I told you this was worth waiting for.

A winged turtle
Artist's rendering...not my actual dream turtle. Mine was smiling.

The winged turtle makes a gentle landing on the dry desert soil, and I think, I really need to get a photo of this because no one will believe me otherwise. So I pull out my camera -- it might have been my phone; it's not like I can remember every detail of my dreams, so give me a break -- and start walking over to where I last saw the turtle.

On the way over to the landing zone, I spot a slice of pizza on the ground. Oh, cool...I need to get this photo also because a slice of pizza lying on the ground in the desert is the most instagrammable thing ever, so I make a quick detour to take a picture of the pizza. 

I then turn my focus back to the aero-turtle, only to find that it has vanished. I'm once again a victim of my short attention span, even in my dreams. There is a suspicious hump in the dirt which I tentatively explore with a stick, but my efforts are for naught. I'm left with only a pizza picture and the fond memories of the floating turtle with a Mona Lisa smile. I did mention the smile, didn't I?

At this point, I wake up. I ponder the meaning of the dream as I stagger from the bedroom to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I also wonder why Scarlett Johansson is hanging out with a badger, but that's a question for another time.

Scarlett and her battle badger