Toilet Wars
August 24, 2017 9:41 PM | Posted in:

Species Neutral Restroom Sign

A female friend posted this on Facebook a few days ago:

Facebook post bemoaning male trashing of gender-neutral restroom

The ensuing comments provided a preview of the nuclear equivalent of the War of the Sexes, with each side accusing the other of being less sanitary or courteous when it comes to the state of public restrooms. Scholarly studies were quoted; personal anecdotes were shared; TMI lines were violated; nothing was resolved. But the "discussion" was lively and bracing.

I've been in only one "gender-neutral" (hereafter referred to as "GN" to save my typing fingers) restroom, and it was completely intimidating. It was located in a restaurant that specialized in what I call "foo foo food," and the clientele is typically female, by a significant margin. So, the restaurant has two restrooms off the main dining area, one female-only and the other GN.

Given the likelihood that the next person in the restroom after me would be a woman, I went far and above the normal bathroom behavior in an attempt to make it seem like I was never there, or that I simply went in for a moment of meditation before dessert. Toilet seat down*? Check. Sink fixtures wiped dry? Check. Mirror streaks (they weren't mine!) obliterated? Check. I did draw the line at opening the door and yelling something like "I NEED TIDY BOWL...STAT!" into the dining room, but I might have used some if it had already been present.

Ladies, please don't judge us guys too harshly when we find ourselves in the unfamiliar surroundings of a GN restroom. Keep in mind that we're probably accustomed to service station bathrooms where the decor is a foldout of the March, 1968 Playmate of the Month taped over the urinal, the floor seems to be alive, and the permeating odor is Clorox losing a battle with more truck stop burritos than you can imagine.

In other words, we're battling both nature and nurture, and pretty much losing on both accounts.

*I have been well-trained by you-know-who in Seat Upsmanship. I have many faults, but that ain't one of 'em.

Armadillo by Morning
August 18, 2017 9:30 PM | Posted in: ,

Note: For reasons to be revealed later, you didn't see this post. In fact, once you're finished here, please extract your memory and destroy it, Mission Impossible-style. Thanks for your cooperation.

Note 2: I conceived the title for this post when I briefly woke in the middle of the night, one of the few times I remembered an idea the next morning. When I told MLB that I had an idea for the title - thinking she would be amazed by my awesome creativity - she immediately said "Armadillo by Morning?" See what I have to deal with?

Armadillos have become the bane of my existence. Our initial reaction to their presence in our back yard was " Texan and cute are they?" has given way to "would the neighbors really complain about the use of one tiny tactical nuclear weapon?" The damage they're doing to our lawn does have the appearance of a heavy shelling, as evidenced below. This is only one of about twenty such divots these animals are creating during their nocturnal searches for worms and grubs.

Disclaimer: I don't actually bear any animosity toward armadillos. They are, of course, the unofficial state mammal of Texas, and I'm as illogically fond of them as the next Texan. They can't help doing what they do, just like some politicians. If you've never encountered an armadillo, here's a somewhat winsome overview courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  

Typical armadillo crater

I'm not the only resident of Horseshoe Bay with this problem, and a tip from another victim led me to the online home of The Armadillo Trap, which is the name of both the creator and the creation. Based on the enthusiastic recommendation of the aforementioned tipster, I quickly parted ways with $94.95 plus S&T for the scented version, which is touted as being far superior to the unscented alternative. 

Here's what the trap looks like, after some minor assemblage. The stick dangling on a string in the hole in the top of the trap is the trigger. It extends into the body of the trap and when the animal contacts it, it pops loose, dropping the two end pieces and forming an inescapable trap.

Armadillo Trap

This is a view of the inside of the trap, showing the trigger described above. Incidentally, I don't know how they managed to impregnate the interior with armadillo scent, or even how they came to possess armadillo scent, and I don't want to know. (A certain scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park comes to mind.) What I do know is that it's a vaguely nasty odor, unless you're an armadillo, then it's apparently Chanel No. 5.

Interior of Armadillo Trap

The instructions said to place the trap in an "obscure and shaded area." I dutifully ignored those instructions and put it where we've seen armadillos partying, as shown below. (If this spot looks familiar, it's also the location of the infamous Dead Possum Raking Incident of 2017.) I figured if armadillos navigate by scent, and if the trap's scent is alluring as they claim, any place in the back yard will work.

Armadillo Trap Locked and Loaded

Having set the trap, we retired to our slumber, nervous as kids on Christmas Eve. Would we wake to goodies or coal in our stockings? Would there be mourning or dancing? Would I ever give up on finding a decent metaphor?

We were not disappointed. The trap was sprung sometime during the night, as you can see below. However...

Here's the list of animals we've seen in or around our yard: raccoons, possums, foxes, deer, squirrels, skunks, snakes. I'm pretty sure we couldn't trap a deer in that box, but all of the others were somewhere on a trendline ranging from possible to doubtful. I wasn't about to open the trap until I knew what was inside.

Armadillo Trap - Surprise Inside?

Fortunately, the hole in the top of the trap permits a quick peek at its contents, and this was definitely the shell of a nine-banded armadillo.

Yep, that's an armadillo's back

The obvious next question: what do you do with a trapped armadillo? I had conducted exhaustive research on my options, consisting of skimming the first ten results returned on Google. Some websites say that it's illegal to "transport and relocate" armadillos in Texas, but the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is the governing authority on such matters, and its website says only that "live armadillos may not be sold." (Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, please refer to the introductory note.)

What I did not want to do is burden another neighbor with my armadillo deportations, so I picked an obscure (there's that term again) and undeveloped area and performed the second part of the "catch and release" program, as shown below in the professionally filmed sequence courtesy of MLB.

It took a bit of coaxing to dislodge the animal. Armadillos sleep 18+ hours each day, and they apparently can drop into a deep sleep anywhere. But as you saw, once the alarm goes off, so do they.

I trust that this specimen has found its new environs to its liking, but the important thing is that it never shows its grubbing little snout in our yard again.

If you are being bullied by armadillos, this trap seems to be the real deal, and gets the coveted Fire Ant Bite of Approval. (OK, I just made that up, but it it a very sincere construction.)

Update: The next night, we trapped another 'dillo. Unfortunately, another one that was rooting around in the grass eluded my [very tentative] attempts to catch it by hand. I'll see you tonight, amigo!

As they marched us back from the river, one soldier was carrying an American flag. That flag was a beautiful sight. I wish that flag could have the same meaning to everyone in this country now.
    -- Loy Dean Lawler
Dr. Loy Dean Lawler was an optometrist who practiced for many years in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He was my wife's uncle (well, the relationship is a bit more complicated than that, but it will suffice). Loy Dean passed away in 2010 at age 86, a well-respected and devout gentleman.

He was also an Army veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. He endured four months as a prisoner of war, captured by the Germans along with thousands of his fellow American soldiers following the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1995, after returning from a reunion of the 106th Infantry Division (the first and only such reunion he could bring himself to attend), Dr. Lawler wrote his memoir of that ordeal. What follows is sometimes hard to read, but perhaps even harder for those of us raised in security and freedom to relate to. It's a stark reminder of the sacrifices that those who came before made so that we can enjoy that security and freedom. It's difficult to know exactly how to express gratitude for these sacrifices, but the least we can do is...never forget.

POW Experience
Dr. Loy Dean Lawler, Mount Pleasant, Texas

I was captured near Schoenberg close to the German border about 4:00 P.M. on December 19, 1944. I was with the 106th Infantry Division, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company E, 1st Platoon. Captain Maxey Crews was our company commander. We had 4 or 5 left out of our platoon. The rest were killed, wounded, or simply missing. We had not had food or been warm or dry since the morning of December 16th. 

Newspaper report of MIA status
Undated newspaper clipping reporting on Lawler's MIA status
At the time of our capture I was with Captain Crews near the dugout that I supposed could be called the Regimental Headquarters. I can still see the anguish and tears on Colonel [Charles C.] Cavender's face when he came out and said we were going to surrender. I can truthfully say nobody around me wanted to surrender. Captain Crews had me relay the order to cease firing and to destroy our weapons. I thought some of the guys were going to shoot me when I passed the order on. It was a problem to get everyone to quit firing. There was some firing after I destroyed my M1 rifle, and that did make me nervous, being without my M1 

We were marched out of the woods and into an open field. On our way I was nearly shot by an SS trooper when I refused to let him have my watch. I changed my mind real quick when he drew his sidearm and put it in my face. I realized later how stupid I had been. The next thing was to destroy a pen and pencil set my Mother had given me, just to keep them from getting it. We huddled together in this open field the rest of the night. Early next morning we began a march that lasted all that day and the following night. I think we went to Prum and onto Gerolstein, but am not sure. The morning of December 21st we were given a piece of bread and put in boxcars. There were 60 of us in one boxcar. It had wooden benches where some sat, and the rest had to lay underneath the benches on the hard and cold floor.

We had several that were sick or wounded and lot of the men had diarrhea. Some were so weak they simply relieved themselves in their pants. Others hollered for the helmet that was passed around and emptied through a hole in the boxcar. I didn't think until later that I hope that wasn't the same helmet that was used to give us water. There was a stove in the boxcar, but nothing to burn--it was just in the way. 

Our train was pulled onto a railroad siding in Limburg, near Frankfurt, to allow higher priority trains to move on. On the night of about December 23, we were bombed by the British. It was quite a show with all the flares and earth-shaking explosions.

We managed to get out of the boxcar. I remembered seeing a foxhole earlier that was nearby. I ran for that and jumped in with the bombs exploding. I jumped on the back of a German guard that was already in the one-man hole. I quickly pushed him back down as he tried to get up and made a fast exit. We had hopes of escaping, but were quickly rounded up after the bombing ceased. I am not sure of this, but I was told we lost 12 out of our 60 men--to the bombs and by the guards thinking some were trying to escape. One of those killed was a friend who had married the day before we left to go overseas. His body lay in front of our boxcar all Christmas eve day. A Sgt. McNamara in our group was a good singer. He was leading us in Christmas carols when the bombing started.

We stayed in the boxcar about 10 days. During that time we had 1/6th of a Red Cross parcel and water once or twice. I am a little hazy on the water that was scarce, but I know for sure about the few bites of food we received.

We arrived at Stalag IVB about December 30th and was assigned to barracks December 31st. Several of the men were too weak to move and had to be carried off the boxcar. I believe we had one die.

We had to undress and were put in a "gas" chamber and deloused before being given a small bowl of warm oatmeal. That was the best meal I ever had-and the last for several months. While at IVB, we were in bunks (hard planks) that were so close together we could hardly turn over. There was a latrine at the end of the barracks with two barrels outside the door. With so much dysentery, most of us couldn't wait our turn and had to go in the barrels. Some Poles who had been in the camp a long time would come in and eat the feces out of the barrels when they could find any of a solid nature. We were not that starved yet. Later on I did find myself digging into a cow pile with a stick, looking for something solid. I found a couple of pieces of undigested carrots that were pretty good. Our diet at IVB was watery soup with very little solids.

About the middle of January, 1945, I was transferred to a Russian work camp, arbeit Kommando L71A near Boxwitz, Germany. We were close enough to Dresden to see the lights and the bombing of that city. 

I was with a group of 100 Americans and 400 Russians. Thirty-one of us and four Russians were assigned to work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, in a coal brickette factory in Boxwitz (or Bockwitz). It was called Fabrique Eine und Zwie. We got out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, stood outside in formation for roll call. The guard would hit anyone with their hand in their pockets because it was not soldier-like. This was before daylight. We then walked one hour to work, before the 12-hour workday.

We had no breakfast--only a cup of what I call acorn coffee, barely more than warm water. Our noon meal consisted of half a Klim can of rutabaga soup without the rutabaga. The night meal was the same with a small piece of bread. On Sunday, our day off, we had only one meal, but I believe we got one small potato occasionally. If we found a worm in our soup that was good--something a little solid. Only on one occasion did we receive 1/6 of a Red Cross parcel, and that was near the time we were liberated.

My work involved some standing on a high scaffold and knocking out a ceiling with heavy hammers. I remember falling once, but wasn't seriously hurt. This didn't last very long, and the rest of the time we were working outside-stacking coal brickettes and loading things on boxcars. One day a German soldier, not one of our guards, came by on an inspection tour and told me to take my coat off--in the coldest winter ever recorded in that part of Germany. I refused. He tried to take it off, but finally gave up and moved on. He was so mad he was frothing at the mouth. I kept my coat on. 

A woman in a nearby house saw us wrestling around. She came out of the house and hid something under the snow next to a chimney. When no one was looking, I slipped over and found a small piece of cake. I mention this to let everyone know that all Germans were not bad.

The best part of our work was near the end of our captivity when the P-38s would strafe the plant. We would get to go to the bomb shelter. A German civilian worker would occasionally hide a thin slice of bread in his hat band and give it to me in the darkness of the shelter.

Our walk to and from work was rather uneventful--except for the cold. I do remember one time a Russian, while walking in formation, (we marched everywhere--never walked) stepped out of line while urinating to keep from hitting the guy in front and the German guard shot him in the face, the bullet going through both cheeks. He walked on to camp without any help.

There was a place in camp where we could take a shower--like once a week. We were separated from the Russians, but they could cut the hot water off when were in the shower and had fun doing it.

About March of 1945 I began to run a temperature and get weaker and weaker. I no longer could eat and had to give my food away. I worked as long as I could because several of the Russians were shot in bed when they couldn't get up. I was lucky, for they put me in a horse-drawn, iron-wheeled wagon with the guard, and took me to the nearest railroad station. I had pleurisy and it hurt to even breathe. I was too weak to sit up, so laying on those hard boards in the wagon and going over those cobblestone roads was a real experience.

We boarded a train for a hospital in Lebenwerda, Germany. It was an old theatre building. Our beds were planks that used to have a little straw on them. The British doctor in charge brought a German colonel in to see us. He, with one hand, put his fingers completely around my leg--just about skin and bone. The doctor was bitterly complaining to the Colonel about our condition. The next day I was taken to a regular hospital for X-rays and some other tests, and then returned to our own "hospital." Soon afterwards, the British doctor received some medicine that broke my fever and I started to get a little better. The guy next to me in the hospital was from the same barracks in our work camp, in fact, slept next to me. He died with something similar. I knew I was in bad shape when they placed this other man and me in the only two beds in our theatre hospital. I weighed 88 lbs and probably lost a little more weight before I got better. I was soon returned to the work camp. It was a strange feeling to travel on a train with German civilians. They looked at me like I was from Mars.

By April the weather began to get a little warmer. Just before we were liberated, as previously mentioned, we received 1/6th of a Red Cross parcel for each man. Prior to this we had no contact with the Red Cross. They "lost" us. About this time we began to miss some of our bread rations and the rutabaga soup without the rutabaga was replaced with some sort of sugar beet soup that was hardly edible. I traded a pack of cigarettes out of the Red Cross parcel for a loaf of bread, but it was stolen before I could eat it. I now know how a person feels when they lose all their worldly possessions.

Sometime after the middle of April all of our guards suddenly disappeared. The exception was a French soldier in German uniform. He was the only decent guard we had. He stayed with us. We could hear firing by the Russians advancing towards us. We started walking towards the American lines to keep from being captured by the Russians and, according to local rumors, marched back into Russia.

We lived off the land--like digging up potato eyes planted in the ground. We found a little burned cheese from a train that had been bombed. Here we were looking into horse and cow manure or anywhere we could find something to eat.

Just before we met the Americans at the Elbe river I was resting by the side of the road when I looked out into a field where a pregnant woman was working. A German guard began stomping her as she lay helpless on the ground. About the same time a German officer sat down beside me and told me the Americans should join up with the Germans and whip Russia while we could. We had spent several days just ahead of the Russians--like getting up (out of a barn) and separating ourselves from the Russians.

In the late afternoon of April 24th we crossed a bombed-out bridge on what I think was the Elbe River and met the Americans--273rd Infantry of the 69th Division. As they marched us back from the river, one soldier was carrying an American flag. That flag was a beautiful sight. I wish that flag could have the same meaning to everyone in this country now. During this walk one of our guys took a bicycle away from a German civilian, but several of us made him give it back. I did get a German officers sabre, but it got bent in the celebration and I threw it away.

We were put in this German home for the night. The man's wife and daughter left to stay with the neighbors, but the husband stayed with us and tried to celebrate with us. He soon passed out on his bed. I went out and milked his cow and drank the milk immediately. This was better than cognac. Our stomachs couldn't take anything very strong. The Russians arrived at the Elbe river about an hour after we did, and they were not as nice to the German civilians as we were.

Before and after photos of Loy Lawler
Loy Dean Lawler as a new recruit in the Army Specialized Training Program (left),
and as a corporal after his return. He quipped that "any POW who survived
got an immediate promotion - some way to get a promotion, huh?"

I don't remember where (maybe Trebsen, Germany), but the 69th Division took us to some barracks where we were billeted for a few days. During the first night with this I&R platoon, 273rd Infantry, 69th Division, we broke into the mess hall and stole most of their food. We returned most of it later when we found out we couldn't eat as much as we thought we could.

We were next sent to Camp Lucky Strike in France. After about two weeks and what I then thought was good food, we were put on a Liberty ship on our way back to Newport News, Virginia. A friend of mine, B. J. Carmichael, and I stayed on deck all the time. We never saw our assigned bunks.

This coincidence is worth mentioning. B. J. Carmichael, from Dallas, Texas, and I took our basic training in Camp Wheeler, Georgia. From there we were sent to the University of Alabama under the ASTP. We were still put in the same unit. We were then sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, still together. We went overseas to England and France, still together. During the Battle of the Bulge, around St. Vith, we were separated. After we were captured, we were together again. When were put in the boxcars on the way to Stalag IVB, we were together. Out of the thousands at IVB, we were in the same barracks and we both were picked for a group of 100 Americans to go to work in a Russian work camp with 400 Russians. A day or two after I went to this German hospital, here came Carmichael. 

We were together until liberated and sent to Camp Lucky Strike. Out of the thousands there, we were still on the same Liberty Ship back to the States. Finally, he was discharged from Ft. Ord, California, and I from Ft. Hood, Texas, but not before we spent a recuperation leave together in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

We haven't seen much of each other since. It is a shame we haven't, but I think both of us didn't care to dwell on the past all that much. He will always be special to me. While the bullets were flying around, I can still hear him hollering for me to "get down." 

To regress a bit, back to the work camp, I twice was put on a detail of about 6 guys to clean out the furnaces at the factory (or plant) where we worked. The ovens looked like pictures I later saw of these ovens where bodies were cremated. This was on a Sunday, supposedly our only day off. The oven doors were just big enough to crawl in, one man to a furnace. While scraping the wall down good, we stood on some grates above a bed of coals that were still hot. We couldn't stay in the ovens very long at a time. There was enough room for us to fall through the grates, but this was one time everyone was real careful. The only air we got was from the open oven door.

I say all of the above to say this. This wasn't any worse than having to stand out in the cold snow and ice at the brickette factory 12 hours a day with just a pair of G.I. boots on your feet. G.I. boots are not warm and they are not waterproof. There ought to be a special place in hell for the person who sold the Army those boots. My feet are still cold.

I know I have rambled around a bit and hit a few highlights. After almost 50 years there is no way I can remember everything. To those of you who were there, you can understand.

If you're interested in learning more about the details of the battle leading up to the capture of American soldiers following the Battle of the Bulge, feel free to check out the following accounts:

Many thanks to Loy Dean's daughter Mercy and his niece Becky for providing access to this story and photos. This has been posted with Mercy's permission.

I've posted this for two reasons. First, it's a way for me to honor a man with whom I was acquainted for decades, but only recently came to know this chapter of his story. Like so many of his generation, he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences.

Which brings me to the second reason: these veterans are leaving us at an alarming and increasing rate, and with them go the stories that illuminate their lives and educate their descendants. Those stories need to be preserved, and this is one way to do that. I did that in 2011 for my dad, and it's an honor to do that in 2017 for Loy Dean Lawler.

You may not have a similar outlet for preserving the stories of those veterans closest to you; regardless, try to take some time to interview them and capture some of their experiences and memories.
[Part 1] [Part 2]

Trigger Warning: Here there be dragons. Or, at least, serpents. Elizabeth, you've been warned.

Having survived the Great Coax Caper and the Putrid Possum Pestilence, we were looking forward to a relaxing hike on the newly-christened Horseshoe Creek Trail with The Nephew, his wife, and their dog Sophie. (I briefly introduced the Trail in this novel-length post from last December.) So, at mid-morning on Saturday we caravanned up to the south trailhead, which is at the end of the winsomely-named Mausoleum Road.

You get to the trailhead by way of Mountain Dew Road, a steep and winding street that meanders through neighborhoods interspersed with the typical Texas Hill Country scrub woods. As we neared the Mausoleum Road turnoff, we encountered this lovely beast stretched out across the pavement:

Photo - Big honkin' rattlesnake

I jumped out of the truck and cautiously (an understatement) approached the snake, and snapped a few photos. Photo of rattlesnake rattleI estimate it was about 3-3 1/2' in length, but what was most striking (pun intended) was the thickness of its body. Rattlers tend to be this way, but some who have seen this photo suggest that this one was either pregnant or had just eaten a large meal. In any event, this was not only the first rattlesnake we've seen in the four years we've been coming to Horseshoe Bay, but also one of the largest we've encountered, period. A closeup of the non-business end of the snake clearly shows nine rattles plus a button...not a record by any means, but still a pretty good noisemaker. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, you can't judge the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles; they add one each time they shed their skin, but they might shed multiple times in a year.)

The snake paid us no mind, and didn't move until we got back in the truck. At that point, I had to make a decision regarding its fate. Had it been in an absolute wilderness with no homes or public trails around, I probably would have let it go, but in this case it was (1) moving toward the trail we were about to hike, and (2) fairly close to a number of houses. So, I chose to inflict Death by Michelin on the serpent. I'm never happy about having to kill an animal, but this one had the obvious potential to do serious harm to humans and their pets.

We proceeded to the trailhead, determined to do the planned hike, but you can bet that the thought of encountering more of these rattlers was at the forefront of all our minds. Horseshoe Creek Trail is not particularly challenging, but at this time of the year, it's covered with leaves and it passes over and through rocky terrain that provides perfect camouflage for snakes. I led the hike and didn't really see much on the first leg other than the ground immediately in front of me, trying to make sure we weren't stepping on anything hazardous to our health. Relaxing? Well, not really.

Fortunately, we didn't come across another snake, but my singleminded attention to the ground almost resulted in an even worse encounter.

We came to a rise in the trail, a section that required stepping onto some rocks, and at the last second, I looked up just in time to see a Big. Honkin'. Spider (!) drop down at eye-level. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a classic case study in arachnophobia, and this freaked me out way more than that rattlesnake. 

The spider had stretched its web completely across the trail, a distance of at least four feet, from a tree on one side to a bush on the other. Had I not seen it in time, I not only would have had a spider on my face, but I would have been wrapped in a web, and I think we all know what that leads to. 

Webbed Frodo
In my mind, every spider is named Shelob.

I may have screamed like a little girl, just the tiniest bit, but we did find an easy detour around this horror, and the rest of the hike was pleasantly uneventful. Here are a handful of photos take along the trail; click on the photos to see larger uncropped versions.

Horseshoe Creek - Not quite a stream in the desert, but close Horseshoe Creek Trail The trail winds through some semi-rugged terrain In places, you can catch a brief view of Lake LBJ The trail passes some serious boulders. Horseshoe Creek Sophie leading the rest of the intrepid band

OK, there was one stretch of dry creek bed that contained a startling reminder that perhaps the snake we encountered earlier was just an infant, a mere worm compared to what might inhabit that rough terrain through which we were traipsing:

Photo - animal skeleton

Is this the skeleton of a harmless deer...or is it more likely the remains of a prehistoric dinoserpent whose descendants still inhabit these hills? You'll have to decide for yourself; I'm still on spider watch.
[Part 1

Now, where were we? Oh, yes...I had completed a successful repair of a shredded coax cable that restored our satellite TV access, and life was good.

Except...something was slightly amiss in the air. There was a lingering odor, a smell that seemed to grow stronger depending on which way the breeze was blowing, and where one stood in the back yard.

As the afternoon went on and the temperature rose, the smell got stronger and became the unmistakable odor of something dead and putrefying. And, as far as I could tell, it was coming from beneath our deck.

I had feared this ever since we bought the house last fall and witnessed an armadillo crawling out from under the deck one night. What was the likelihood that an animal would expire under the deck, and how would we deal with it?

I wanted to seal all the possible entry points, but it was a Catch-22 situation: what if I locked in a nocturnal critter, causing its death by starvation, and thus birthing the exact scenario I was working to avoid?

But now, we had to confront the reality head-on. There was a bit of urgency to the task, apart from the increasingly offensive aroma in our back yard. We were expecting the arrival of guests that evening, and they were bringing their dog who would undoubtedly freak out at the possibility of rolling around in something dead. Hey, that's what dogs do, right?


The first order of business was to locate the exact source of the odor, because that would help me understand what would be needed to deal with it. There were no large openings in the deck, and I was fresh out of remote-controlled robotic nano-cameras to send in a search-and-recovery mission. So, I did the next best thing: I watched where the flies were swarming, grabbed my industrial strength flashlight, and began shining it into the small seams between the deck planks. My fly-directed instinct was accurate, and I quickly spotlighted a tail. As I moved across the next several seams, a clear picture emerged of an expired possum, and a fairly large one at that.

So, I knew what I was dealing with, and where it was located. I now had to figure out how to get to it. I first tried taking up the decking directly above the malodorous marsupial, but the wood screws had become inextricably merged with the decking and this approach was a non-starter.

Plan B was to remove a section of the deck siding directly adjacent to the stinking stiff. This was significantly easier than removing the decking, but still not without its challenges. I won't go into the minutiae of the process; suffice it to say that it required another trip to Ace Hardware, and I'm now the proud owner of a 4-foot crowbar, a mini-hacksaw, and a new garden rake. [Aside: This is a problem with having a second home...many of your tools reside somewhere else.]

Removing the siding was a relatively quick job - apart from the run to the hardware store - and it led to the most unpleasant part of the task: retrieving the reeking remains. That's where the rake came in, if you were wondering. We [by then, MLB was at my side, offering spiritual solace and a second pair of hands] put a heavy duty trash bag on the ground, and I endeavored to rake the offensive opossum out from under the deck and into the bag.

Normally, at this point in a task, I would take a photograph to document the proceedings. But the thought of having a picture of a squishy, maggot-infested carcass on my phone trumped my documentarian tendencies. Feel free to thank me, dear reader. However, that doesn't mean that we don't have visual proof of the episode, courtesy of our game camera. I hope the following isn't too shocking.

Photographic proof: possums wear shirts!

[Note: I realize that some of you are thinking, "what a noob!" because this type of thing is old hat to you - the dead animal, not discovering it's actually Pogo - because you've lived in the country long enough to have encountered it many times over, and then some. But it's brand new territory for us city folks.]

With many exclamations along the lines of "ewww" and "ick" and "yuck" (and it's not easy to emit such exclamations whilst holding your breath) we managed to roll the corroded corpse into the bag, which I quickly sealed and hauled downwind for safekeeping until I could permanently dispose of it. MLB scattered some odor-absorbing pellets under the deck, and I then reattached the siding with a single wood screw on each end, in case we ever had to repeat this process.

Within an hour or so, only the keenest of noses could detect that anything was ever amiss in the back yard. Of course, that keen nose did eventually show up on the end of a curious German shepherd, but after much earnest sniffing, she lost interest and began to focus on the more important task of stick chasing.

However, there's one nagging thought: what was the cause of death? Silly me; I failed to perform an autopsy, so now I'm left with only speculation. As a wise coworker told reminded me, "everything dies," so it could have been natural causes. But what if it was something more sinister, like a hit by the local squirrel mafia? We've also had some suspicious characters roaming our back yard when all law-abiding mammals should be snuggled in bed. Perhaps there's a reason they always wear masks.

Raccoons: Nature's little felons

Anyway, to recap: two crises dealt with, and we could now relax for the rest of the weekend.

OK, there was just ONE. MORE. THING. 

After a month-long family crisis that ended in a bittersweet manner, we headed for our Hill Country hideaway for a long weekend of regenerative relaxation. We looked forward to a time of recuperation, both emotional and physical.

But, you know what they say about telling God your plans. Here's a hint: don't.

Our first indication that things might not play out exactly as we hoped came almost as soon as we walked through the door, when we discovered that our satellite-connected TV displayed the dreaded blue screen indicating no signal. MLB spent a half hour on the phone with DirecTV lack-of-support, booting and rebooting the box to no avail, while being assured that there was no apparent problem with our dish. She finally had to schedule a service call, which couldn't happen for a week.

Accepting the inevitable, we continued settling in, and then went into the back yard to check things out. It didn't take me long to discover this:

Pieces of shredded coax cable

There was a two-foot gap in the cable running from the satellite dish into the attic. The cable hadn't just been had been annihilated, as if a band of marauding mutant squirrels with titanium teeth had gone medieval on it. Of course, there was also the [more boring] likelihood that the lawn service had shredded it with a mower.

I'll confess that I have never tried to splice a coax cable. Unlike speaker wire that's drop-dead simple in construction, coax is mysterious and finicky, and repairing it requires special tools, connectors, and expertise; I was 0-for-3 in those areas. This was a challenge I was unprepared for, but faced with the possibility of four days of nothing but conversation, I was motivated to conquer it.

The first order of business was to solve the tool and connector crises. I turned to that trusty stalwart companion of every inadequate DIYer, the Home Depot, and found this coax repair kit. These tools would allow me to put connectors on the ends of the severed cable. I also bought a short length of ready-made coax, and a couple of splice connectors.

I then found a YouTube video explaining the intricacies of arcane art of coax repair. Along with the printed instructions that accompanied the tool kit, I now possessed the knowledge to do the job. Probably. Possibly. Well, we'd soon find out.

Taking a tip from the aforementioned video, I stopped by Ace Hardware and picked up some heat-shrink tubing to weatherproof the new connections, which would be reburied once the repairs were made.

I found some old coax in the attic and made a couple of practice runs with the tools to make sure I understood the repair process. The process was a lot easier than I expected; it's really just a matter of having the right tools for the job. Satisfied with the results, I moved over to the severed cable and...discovered a complication. Surprising, right? That never happens.

It turns out that the satellite coax has a ground wire running its entire length. That makes sense, and I suspect it's actually required by local building codes. But the coax I got didn't have the associated ground wire. So, off again to Ace to get a spool of copper wire to splice the ground wire. Fortunately, our local store is well-equipped and had just what I needed.

Back to the cable repair. Enduring the 90-degree heat, high humidity, and hungry mosquitos, I managed to affix new connectors to the severed cable, insert the coax splice with the adapters, and add the ground wire splice. I used a butane lighter on the heat shrink tubing to seal the connections, and wrapped the entire length in heavy-duty, weatherproof electrical tape. It was time to find out if I passed the coax repair initiation test.

I turned on the TV in the living room while MLB turned on the one in the bedroom. "We have a picture!" she yelled from the bedroom. However, the living room TV still had no signal. It took only a quick reboot of the box to remedy that, and we were back in business.

This was a small but significant victory, and meant that the rest of the weekend would be spent in relaxation and recovery.

Well...not exactly.

Dear City of Midland,

My wife and I are homeowners in Woodland Park, at the far north end of "A" Street. We are also bicyclists, and we were pretty excited when you re-striped "A" Street from Mockingbird south to Loop 250 and created a nice wide lane for cyclists, runners, and walkers. As far as I know, this was the first truly functional bike lane in Midland (those in the downtown area are, frankly, dangerous jokes, but I suspect you know that). It's only a mile in length, but it gave hope to us for what might come.


I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but simply creating bike lanes isn't really enough. They must be maintained. And the city is falling short in this regard.

Residential streets - especially those like "A" Street where a lot of adjacent development is taking place - attract a lot of debris: sand, gravel, miscellaneous trash. Before the bike lanes were installed, that debris was forced into the gutter by traffic. Guess where it collects now?

Instead of blowing against the curb and settling in the gutter, it tends to spread evenly across the width of the bike lane. It's actually a pretty interesting phenomenon - it's almost like a tractor beam for debris overlays the bike lane, and nothing remains in the roadway.

This is not too much of an issue for runners, and walkers probably don't notice it at all. But it's a really big deal for us cyclists. Bike tires are more vulnerable to flats than you might think, especially those skinny tires on so-called racing bikes ridden by those guys in colorful spandex. That's not my wife and me, but there are a lot of them out there. A blowout on a bike is a dangerous occurrence, especially in the presence of passing traffic.

The best way to avoid that issue is to avoid the bike lane, so, ironically, what we now have is the situation where people are cycling in traffic lanes that are more narrow than before, in order to avoid the problematic wider-than-before bike lanes.

I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but it seems to me that if you install a bike lane, that automatically comes with an obligation to maintain it. And maintenance seems pretty straightforward: send a street sweeper up and down "A" Street twice a month. That seems like a reasonable approach, doesn't it? We're not asking for someone to get up early every morning and hand-sweep the street (I've been places where that happens, by the way).

Let me be clear. I do appreciate the planning and effort that went into creating these bike lanes. I think it's a wonderful start to making Midland a better place to ride bikes, which in turn enhances the perceived quality of life for a lot people. I just wish the great start wasn't being subverted by the less than stellar follow-through.

Your pal,


Nocona, Texas: A pleasant surprise
April 9, 2017 8:03 PM | Posted in: ,

Our road trip began in Midland, Texas, after lunch last Thursday and ended 950 miles later, on the following Saturday morning. During that time, we--MLB, my mother, and I--traveled through some of the best and worst parts of Texas.

The purpose of the trip was twofold, with one being significantly more enjoyable than the other. Our immediate destination was the city cemetery at Nocona, where we would attend the graveside service of my mother's sister who passed away about a week earlier.

Our second stop would be in Fort Worth, where my mother would visit with her remaining sibling (out of the original eleven twelve*), an older sister who was unable to travel to attend the service.

The round trip from Midland to Nocona, then to Fort Worth and back to Midland was about 720 miles. The remainder of the mileage came on Saturday morning when we drove Mother home to Fort Stockton and then returned to Midland.

Below is a map showing the route we took, in case you want to retrace our tire tracks. The annotations didn't appear on the original Google Map, but they should have.

Google Map excerpt

The drive from Midland to Abilene is rarely a treat for the eyes, and this trip was no exception, although the appearance of thick patches of bluebonnets around Sweetwater, thanks to the mild winter and timely rainfall, was a pleasant surprise. But the real surprise came as we turned northward from Abilene and entered the hilly plateau country of north central Texas (it probably has a specific regional name, but darned if I could find it). I've only been that way a few times, but I had never seen the foliage so green and thick nor the ponds, creeks, and lakes so full. An added pleasure was the absence of oilfield service trucks and oil tankers, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the Permian Basin.

While the second half of the drive to Nocona was a pleasant surprise, the actual town of Nocona was doubly so. We had reservations at the Red River Station Inn, located in the heart of downtown (if you can apply such anatomical references to an area of two blocks), and it turned out to be a delightful place to stay. The RRSI is a B&B-style inn consisting of ten rooms, each with a theme based on regional historical characters (we stayed in the Quanah Parker and Joe Hancock rooms. I knew about Quanah Parker, but I was unfamiliar with Joe Hancock, which turns out to be the name of both a famous Texas quarter horse and the man who owned him).

Photo - Red River Station Inn front desk
Front desk and spiral staircase leading to dining room and veranda

Photo - Red River Station Inn 1st floor hallway
The Inn's first floor layout seems to mimic an Old West town main street.

Photo - Red River Station Inn front desk
The decor in the 2nd floor hallway leading to the veranda is indisputably Texan.

The innkeeper and owner, Bob Ferguson, helped design and remodel the existing building to create the hotel, and the before-and-after photos on the website give some idea of the work that went into that project. It would be a great weekend getaway for anyone within a hundred miles of Nocona, and I'm not the only one to think that...reservations are hard to come by this time of year.

The inn offers free beer and wine in the evenings in the upstairs dining room and veranda, and DIY breakfasts each morning. An additional dining option is next door at the newly-constructed Red River Pizzeria, another pleasant surprise, featuring a variety of pasta dishes as well as hand-tossed pizzas.

Nocona and the surrounding area apparently has a lot going on. The town has a museum showcasing 120 classic cars (located downtown), and the annual classic car show and auction in May attracts people from all over the country. We also met the co-owners of the 4R Ranch Winery who described an apparently never-ending series of events, both public and private, going on at their location near Muenster, a short drive from Nocona. Several new businesses have opened or will soon open in downtown Nocona. 

Photo - Bench made from pickup bed
You can't park your truck on the sidewalk, but you can still sit on the pickup bed.

And if all that's not enough to attract you, the town has what I believe are the widest downtown parking spaces in the world. Seriously, I could have parked my truck sideways in the angled space. If the town achieves its apparent goal of becoming the next Fredericksburg, it will have to narrow those spaces to provide more parking.

Photo - Red River Station Inn and street parking
Those cars in front of the Inn are NOT parallel-parked.

Following a short but sweet and moving graveside service for my aunt, we headed for Fort Worth for another short and sweet visit with another aunt. This drive wasn't as pleasant as the previous day's, however, as we spent more time than desired on that special piece of Hell on Earth known at Interstate 35. Crews have been working on I-35 since the Ice Age, and will undoubtably be working on it when Jesus returns (much to the relief of those who will be raptured from the non-moving traffic in which they've been trapped since childhood). I told my mother that I'm now officially too old to ever do that again, and she agreed.

As an aside, I mentioned above that my aunt and my mother are the two remaining children from a brood of eleven twelve*. I find it interesting to reflect on the naming conventions their parents employed for the kiddos. I'm going to try to list the siblings, from oldest to youngest (more or less; some of the older details are fuzzy), to give you a taste of how children's names have changed over the past century. There was Seiver, Tressie, Ora, Odell, Richard (they obviously slipped up there and succumbed to conventionality), Rease, Curtis*, Burtis, Helen (another middle-of-the-road name), Euvela, Melba, and Jasper.

Now, contrast that with the siblings on my dad's side: Ray, Robert, John, Joe, Martin, Sally, Alice, David, Margaret. My dad's parents apparently drew on the Hardy Boys collection for naming inspiration.

We spend a little more than an hour visiting in Fort Worth, and besides the nice time with my aunt and her son and his wife, I also scored a few packages of waffle mix from my cousin Jerry, aka The Wafflemeister. (His secret: mix buttermilk and sweet milk in equal portions. But you didn't hear it from me.) We then hit the road for the return trip at about 5:00 p.m. and you know what that means. Fortunately, we made pretty good time getting away from Fort Worth and the further west we went, the lighter the traffic.

We did see the aftermath of three accidents, one of which was a horrific multi-vehicle affair that necessitated the landing of a life-flight helicopter on the interstate and backed up traffic for about five miles. Fortunately for us, all of those wrecks were on the eastbound side of the interstate, and our only delays were from the rubberneckers on our side.

This was not a trip I'd care to repeat on a regular basis, but all things considered, it was a good time and accomplished a couple of worthy goals.

*Update: Thanks to cousin Marshall for reminding me that I forgot my Uncle Curtis (which made for twelve sibs, not eleven. In my [weak] defense, I'm not sure that I ever met Curtis. But he shouldn't be forgotten.

PSA: Ballroom Music for DJs
March 31, 2017 6:43 PM | Posted in: ,

I received an email a few months ago from a DJ in Alabama who was preparing for an upcoming event where a number of ballroom dancers would be present, and he wanted some help in preparing a playlist. He admitted that he tended to play the same songs over and over when he got requests for a particular dance style, due to his lack of knowledge about ballroom. 
He had run across this list that I had posted several years ago, and since the iTunes Store link for each song no longer worked (thanks a bunch, Apple), he didn't know which musicians performed the songs on the list, and asked if I had a list that included the artists.
I was able to re-create that list for him, and I took the opportunity to add a few more recent songs. He was quite appreciative, and told me that he was adding the list to his file of "things to always carry to a gig."
My observation is that many (most?) DJs aren't very knowledgeable about ballroom dance music or steps (heck, a lot of band leaders aren't either; some seem to think that every song with a vaguely Latin beat is a bossa nova. I'm a ballroom dancer and I don't know how to do a bossa nova.). This isn't surprising, since ballroom dancers are likely a small and shrinking audience at most events. I was more than happy to help this gentleman because it meant being able to support and promote ballroom in some small way.
It also caused me to consider the likelihood that there are other DJs out there who are in the same boat: they don't often work a ballroom crowd, but when they do, they feel a bit inadequate for the undertaking. With that in mind, I'm going to draw upon my decade-plus dance experience (including five years of preparing ballroom playlists), and offer some tips to DJs in case Mr. Google leads them to this page.
  • I have created a downloadable list of suggested songs showing song title, artist, and suggested dance step (PDF format).

  • The waltz is your friend. Waltzes are to ballroom dancers like the Star Spangled Banner is to most Americans (some NFL players excluded): if you want to get their attention, or better yet, get them on the dance floor, play a waltz. 

  • But don't play a fast waltz. Mr. Bojangles is a great song, but a bad choice for a dance's too fast (and too long...see below). The best waltzes are slow and romantic, and the ladies will make sure the guys get them onto the dance floor. Moon River is always a great choice; for something more contemporary, try Easy by Rascal Flatts.

  • Many Latin-flavored songs lend themselves to both rumba and cha cha steps, so when in doubt, simply introduce the song as "Latin." Leave it up to the dancers to decide what to do. Santana's Smooth is a great example of a song that will accommodate both steps, as is the Pussycat Dolls' version of Sway.

  • West Coast swing is completely different from East Coast swing (the latter is noted on the playlist simply as "swing"). However, while one can generally do an East Coast swing  to a West Coast number, vice versa is rarely true. Wilson Pickett's Mustang Sally is a good example of a song that works for both steps. If you're at a loss for a West Coast tune, find a slow blues number; it will likely work.

  • If someone asks you for a Night Club 2 Step or Night Club Slow, they're wanting a slow, romantic song (sometime referred to as a "belt buckle rubbing song"). Unchained Melody or Patsy Cline's Crazy will always do the trick.

  • If you're playing a gig that is primarily geared toward ballroom, be sure to vary the songs. There's nothing more aggravating than getting three or four of the same steps in a row, whether they're fox trot, waltz, Latin, or swing. This will require some advance planning, and even the best plans will be derailed by special requests, but try to vary the steps as much as possible.

  • Ballroom dancers differ from the usual party crowd in wanting to have a little time between songs. For one thing, since ballroom is always partner dancing, this gives the gentlemen time to escort the ladies back to their seats after a dance, if they're not a couple.

  • Never include a song that's more than four minutes long. (Rules are made to be broken, and this one can at least be bent, but try to adhere to it.) The Gotan Project's Santa Maria tango from the movie Shall We Dance is popular, but at almost six minutes, it's too dang long for most dancers. Unless you're a pro, you don't have enough tango steps to fill six minutes of music.

  • Line Dancing Prohibited!
  • Keep the volume reasonable. If you normally crank Uptown Funk to 10, Fly Me to the Moon should be around 7. Ballroom lends itself to conversation while dancing, and chest-pounding bass won't make the DJ any friends.

  • Unless your client has given you strict instructions to the contrary, it's OK to throw in some non-ballroom songs, as long as you don't overdo it. The occasional Texas 2 Step, polka, or a "Golden Oldie" tune like The Twist is actually a welcome change for even ballroom dancers. And, what the heck, see if you can get away with Uptown Funk near the end of the might be surprised at the good response.

  • Last, but certainly not least, line dances shall not be tolerated. Remember when I said rules are made to be broken? This one isn't. Not even in Texas. (I can't, however, speak for Alabama.)

Running Down the Rabbit Hole
March 10, 2017 3:14 PM | Posted in: ,

Wait. Is it really "down the rabbit hole," or is it "down the rabbit trail"? Or is it "bunny trail"? Hold that thought; it might become relevant later on.

I went for a run on Wednesday after work, the first one this year (in Midland). It know how sometimes you get into a workout and it starts out hard and you're feeling miserable but at some point you settle into a groove and it becomes almost effortless and you think you could just do it forever? This was nothing like that. It started out bad and basically stayed that way, until the point where it got worse. Which was almost immediately.

Visual contrasting the beginning of my workout with the ending
In all honesty, I didn't look this good at either the beginning or end.

In 45 minutes of running primarily on the trails around the neighborhood, I managed only a painful 4.3 miles, and I was dead tired when I got home. The next day, my legs — and my quadriceps in particular — were incredibly sore. I couldn't help wondering why running outside was so different than running on a treadmill, and why my frequent workout on an elliptical trainer didn't better prepare me for that run. Naturally, I turned to Mr. Google for answers, and he helpfully provided some potentially useful links.

The first one was a general discussion of the pros and cons of running on a treadmill, and the key takeaway is that there's really no difference other than the presence of wind resistance and the possibility of terrain changes when running outside. The article then offered this simple tip, via reference to a scientific study: set your treadmill on a 1% incline and it will provide exactly the same workout as running outside. Genius! Why didn't I think of that?

But I wasn't content to leave it there, so I followed some other links, including one on the respected Runner's World website. That article muddied the waters considerably, stating that the 1% guideline was "mostly urban myth." It in turn linked to this blog post by Dr. Casey Kerrigan. Kerrigan seems to be a fairly credible source, given her background as a distance runner, Harvard-educated physician, and noted researcher specializing in running biomechanics. 

With support from the National Institute of Health, she has done extensive studies on treadmill running. One of those studies demonstrated that there is absolutely no significant biomechanical differences in treadmill workouts done at slight inclines, declines, or when level. Her article also cited the results of this study concluding that treadmill workouts are more efficient than any other type of indoor exercise equipment (sorry, elliptical/stairmaster/rowing machine/exercise bike owners).

Winding my way down this rabbit hole (see what I did there?) made me feel better about running on a treadmill, but it did nothing to explain why that outdoor run was so challenging. So I have to offer my own theory. Neither the treadmill nor the elliptical can duplicate the challenges of running along a rutted trail where footing is often sketchy and the surface varies from sand to hard-packed caliche to loose rocks (and while it's a bit too early for this to be a big concern, later on I would be additionally distracted by the possibility of rattlesnakes in the road). I realized during the run that I was lifting my feet higher on the trail to navigate around and over the dips, ruts, and rocks, and I think this put a lot more stress on my legs than running indoors or on pavement.

In the end, it boils down to a simple rule - specificity of training. You can get aerobically fit by cycling...but cycling alone will not ensure that you can run a marathon. (The reverse is also true; running will not get you into cycling condition; your legs and lungs might be up to the task, but cycling stresses other parts of your body and you'll realize that after about 30 minutes on that narrow saddle). So, if I want to get more comfortable with trail running, I simply have to do more trail running.