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(1999-2002: Pre-Retirement Years)

Christmas decorations

12/01/01-Sat.-Up about 6:45. Sipping coffee at Wal-Mart while waiting for Fran's car to be ready. Have taken it in for their "best value" oil change and lube, as part of her Christmas present. Checked her vehicle's dip stick the other night and could hardly find any oil at all. Added some to tide her over; but the level was still low after we'd exhausted our supply. Getting several quarts for a reserve at home, plus some winter rye seed, before leaving the store today.

Have decided on the primary areas of emphasis in retirement:


For some reason I do better to focus on just a few things at a time, with five being about my maximum. Once I assure they are in good shape (or as well as practicable), everything else falls into place.

In this case, areas not making the final cut were often fairly significant, including travel, nature outings, love, artistic endeavors, photography, sex, neat workshops, kids, hiking in the mountains, yard and gardens activities, humor, cultural events, movies, a new home, buying and managing extra land, house maintenance, education, and spirituality. But if I concentrate on the chosen five, there likely will be opportunity for these as well, depending, of course, on how much or little time I have left.

Frances and I have been invited to Claudia and Ron's for an afternoon birthday party today, for our niece, Jane. We had already given her a gift last month. This is mainly a chance for her to celebrate with a number of her young friends in a semi-rural setting, complete with Claudia's horse. They may even ride him a little. It is perfect fall weather for the occasion.

12/06/01-Thurs.-Up multiple times through the nocturnal periods the last two nights, with sinusitis, asthma, coughing, sore throat, and bronchial wheezing. Got about five hours of much interrupted sleep between the two nights. Despite prescription inhalants and all the other meds I can safely take, the symptoms persist. I sound and feel like I should be on a hospital ward. However, today my caseload is being inventoried, preparatory to transfer; so I'm on the job.

While I was at work, though, one of our friends, to whom I'd sent a virus alert, responded with some info. that may prove very valuable to us, though it would mean starting over from scratch with our built-in and personal software, most all of which is available in backup form.

You see, at home yesterday, Frances and I were distressed to discover that a rapidly progressive and destructive virus has infected our computer, undoubtedly also sending itself out to most all our e-mail address book folks. Fran's Herculean efforts notwithstanding, it continues to cause major damage, with no sign yet of being stopped.

Later. Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" is playing in the background, one of my favorite music pieces. Fran says they're playing it at a frenetic tempo, as if impatient to get home. But, to my sped-up, too fast antihistamine-laden brain, it seems just fine, as association after association competes for preeminence in my consciousness. To wit:

  • Essence of apple, then pear, then tangerine, while I'm preparing a snack for work tomorrow...
  • "Grokking" just the way my face looks as the razor slides down across the lather and flesh...
  • Recollection of last night's illness and insomnia, using inhalants, cough drops, handkerchiefs with blowing, throat clearings, hacking up great gobs of phlegm from the base of my bronchial tubes, my nose and gums bleeding slightly...
  • About 2 AM, watching one of my best-loved Christmas movies "A Christmas Carol," while waiting to be able to sleep a little, once more...
  • The moments Dostoevsky is standing near the front of the line, waiting for a firing squad to delete him...
  • The sound of my blood surging through vessels in my neck...

Fran and I have begun to adjust to the latest setbacks, the loss of most computer function, needing to deal with a digital virus, plus my allergies and related asthma flareup. Not pleasant. But we can cope.

This evening, we left the anti-virus program running and went out to eat at Black-Eyed Pea. I probably looked like a drugged-out zombie. However, wine with bread and veggies were good, particularly in my new "speed"-induced, moment-by-moment, enhanced perception and photographic focus on this and that otherwise prosaic nearby social situation, as if each were as sanctified as "The Last Supper." A rather nondescript couple kissing in an adjoining booth was imbued with all the passion and mythic perfection of a pair of ancient Greek gods.

12/07/01-Fri.-Sixty years ago today Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in a stroke destroyed our country's isolationist foreign policy and ushered in a time of unparalleled American hegemony in world affairs.

Of course, for me today has more significance as the last full state workshift. My retirement begins at 11:30 AM, on Monday, 12/10.

And just as we are not, in the 21st Century, free from the profound effects of unexpected violence against us, as on 9/11/01, so too both the common cold and computer viruses are persisting in their effects here tonight in our household.

I still, after several days, cannot use our PC in a normal fashion. All binary efforts are going into ridding our files of viral contamination. We may have to replace everything.

My sinus and other symptoms, along with sleep deprivation, continue as well. I believe I'm the sickest I've been since, nearly two years ago, I almost had to be hospitalized for severe pulmonary problems.

Tonight, to Pepper's delight, Sam is here again, for another Baltic Buzzards rehearsal. This evening brought a pleasant surprise too: a $5000 season's greetings check from my mom. Happy holidays!

12/08/01-Sat.-Our friend who'd the other day recommended that we simply purge all the software in our computer and start over also said that the virus likely would just get worse each time we would reboot, until such a complete purge had occurred. Of course, there was no way to be certain this was the case with our virus. And, it turns out, we did not have backup disks for several things. So, Fran has been spending hours and hours, using a free anti-virus program, trying to control and delete the infection and then to save things for which there was not good backup. Meanwhile, however, much as our friend would have predicted, in spite of apparent initial successes against it, the virus has rendered our system less and less functional. In the wee hours of morning today, Frances gave up after nearly three hours on the computer. By then she could not print, go online, readily send or receive messages, or even shut the computer down in a normal way.

She has gotten a friend of hers who works for Dell, and has helped us before, to come over tomorrow night and completely erase the non-pictorial (pictures not affected by this virus) PC software and help us reload it in safe ways, from backups.

I am concerned that, even if precautions are taken, backup disks belatedly made in the last few days may be able to reinfect our system. I think it may be better to just sacrifice some now in order to have fairly good assurance of virus-free software. Fran is our resident expert, though, and feels it is a small risk and one worth taking.

We got up after 7 AM and went for a rainy walk about an hour later.

I think I may have a fungal infection on my nose, that results in white bubble- or blister-like prominences, that vary in when and where they appear on the nasal skin surface. Either that or I'm dying of an exotic bubble disease! Fortunately, I have a dermatology appointment on 12/12.

12/09/01-Sun.-The allergy and asthma symptoms persist, though somewhat abated.

The computer remains essentially non-functional. Fran's computer expert friend has called and said he cannot come over to help us till tomorrow night.

We went for a walk, did our shopping and went to Trudy's for breakfast this morning. Frances also gave me a great massage.

This afternoon, a nap was cut short by a call from Pete, who was passing through and wanted to stop by for about an hour. He arrived a little after three, had some coffee, and chatted with me till the time he'd set for himself to leave. Fran has little patience with him after any number of things in the past of which she did not approve. She felt free to jump into our conversation with well-placed verbal barbs that put him on the defensive, though I believe he'd been rather relaxed at first.

It appears the partnership between him and Ernie has not proven as profitable as they had hoped. He is now thinking of trying again to get and keep a regular job, in California. Having ended relationships with several women who were for a time quite devoted to him, he is now feeling lonely too. Angry as I was with him after his antics last winter and spring, I now just feel sad for his situation. I do not think it will be easy for him to find happiness.

I had planned this month to complete the proofing and readying for online uploading of the last chapter of my early journal, that runs through 1975. Unfortunately the time I had set aside for this is now passing without the use of the computer, where the diary was stored. The best we could do was save it to a disk and hope it has not been virus contaminated. The typed, hard copy version is still available, of course, in case we can no longer use the saved one. I now hope the final, early "Steps" chapter will go online next month, assuming that by then our major computer difficulties have ended.

In about ten days we are to be leaving for a Florida vacation with Fran's folks. Between now and then, tomorrow, there is my retirement party and, with luck, getting our computer back in good shape.

Then I'll be busy with completing and sending in forms for retirement and insurance, Christmas cards and shopping, a dermatology appointment, preparing our monthly online newsletter, visiting with my mom in Waco, and packing for the trip.

12/10/01-Mon.-RETIRED! Yes, it has finally happened.

Slept out in the front room on the sofa again last night, thanks to my allergies and asthma, but am doing much better. Fran, however, has caught a cold. We'll probably still sleep apart for a few more days.

Got to work about 7:30. My boss was relieved to see me, anxious about the retirement party in my honor. I felt very much on the spot once it started, at 9:30. A small crowd of about 80-100 showed up, a modest but not inconsiderable number of well-wishers, considering the event had had to be rescheduled three times and several had thought it already occurred a week ago.

Once the festivities began, they flowed along with a natural grace, and my jitters disappeared. People seemed to be genuinely pleased for me. I gave a brief, impromptu speech, and there was laughter at the right places. My unit had done a lot of work setting up this ceremony, getting plenty of food for it, and arranging both sincere and gag gifts. It turned out to be fun!

I got away about 11:30 AM, now a former state employee.

As retirement is no longer simply looming but my newly acquired condition, I feel somewhat as on my wedding night, excited and a little nervous at the same time.

Frances sometimes has a little less sense of occasion than I. So no special recognition on the home front, of my career's successful conclusion, had been expected. And this morning she confirmed this. Plus, tonight we'll be busy trying to get our virus-laden computer working again.

So, for a celebratory brunch I took myself to Trudy's South and enjoyed their migas plate, but with egg-substitute, in deference to the current lowered cholesterol goal.

12/11/01-Tues.-And so, retired life begins. We got up at 6:45 and went for a walk with Pepper over by Target, where we also shopped for cards. The weather is rainy, cool, and overcast.

Back at the house, Fran continued efforts to restore the computer to full functioning. Her tech wizard friend had worked on it yesterday evening for nearly three hours, loading it with all new software, including some significant upgrades, and gave Frances an informative, running commentary. Too bad we didn't think to record him. Once we're adjusted to the new system, it should be faster and more versatile than what we had lost to the virus. We were very impressed and decided to get him a gift since he would accept no payment.

After Frances had left for work today, about mid-morning, I headed off through the precipitation and slow traffic to run some errands for both of us.

The main reason for the trip, though, was to get a hefty gift certificate from Fonda San Miguel. We'd decided both the tech friend and his wife, a school band director with whom Fran works, would appreciate a free dinner at this famous restaurant. Unfortunately, they have changed their hours from when I'd last been there and are now only open for lunch on Sundays.

Frustration mounted as, this afternoon, I tried to use our refurbished computer for some fairly basic functions and found several things still not operational at all. We may also still have a virus (or have one again).

Still unable, for instance, to send/receive e-mails or proof documents. Indeed, when I tried the latter, the computer repeatedly froze up.

The rain continues to pour down in buckets. A depressing day. I have much to do but am accomplishing little.

12/12/01-Wed.-In my active Lifestream Way days this was a significant date, the day my guru was born. Although he is now deceased (1990), in India millions are likely still celebrating this event.

Yesterday evening I finished and mailed in the insurance forms and we were successful in getting the gift certificate we'd wanted from Fonda San Miguel. We also took ourselves for delicious dinners to West Lynn Cafe, bringing home scrumptious leftovers.

After much trial and error, Fran was successful in reestablishing a major part of our computer's e-mail system.

We had over fifty waiting messages from the time we were down with an attachment virus. Despite our precautions, at least one of these infected us with a new, different virus. I sent out new warnings to our regular correspondents and deleted everyone from our address book. Felt like tearing out my hair, breaking things, and bellowing! Restrained myself.

After Fran, who still has a bad cold, had gone to bed, I worked at the computer for another couple hours last night, trying to get some other functions back, but was unsuccessful.

This morning Fran got to the bottom of the latest virus difficulties (which turned out to be harmless to us) and eliminated them. So, we're apparently in relatively good shape again, but most now do a new virus purge each day (and recheck at the end of the day, to be sure we're still free of infection, just before being away for awhile, so as not to come home to a nasty PC surprise).

The big deal event du jour was my doctor appointment. The physician jabbed, shaved, and sliced at my nose. I now have a little pile of bandages where some of my flesh had been. I'm sure my new visage will be an improvement. She'll let me know in a week if additional sculpting will be required. A "spot" on my arm turned out to be benign.

I went to Trudy's to "lick my wounds," so to speak, with a low cholesterol plate of good vittles. In fact, busy as I am, I think the latest trauma warrants an extra treat and so am going out to see a movie this afternoon.

Later. I went to "Behind Enemy Lines," a fine action movie that definitely holds the attention and provides good entertainment for your movie buck.

12/13/01-Thurs.-I tried unsuccessfully again last night for nearly two hours to correct some things messed up by our virus crash. Then Fran figured them out this morning, while Pepper and I were on a walk. Yea! We are using a free download anti-virus scan to control things fairly promptly, about as soon as new infections to our system occur. For the first time in over a week, things appear to be in relatively good shape on the PC front. We got an e-mail from a lady who works for a major university. She said they have a terrific problem with "worm" type computer viruses. They can never get everyone clear of them at once. They just keep being recycled. It is causing a lot of difficulties. It sounds like there's a regular "organic" soup of infection out there now.

The house electricity has a worrisome new anomaly now, intense electrical surges, so great that they cause the 60 and 100 Watt bulbs to look more like 200-250 Watt ones and to hum or buzz! Can't be good for fire safety. Fortunately, the computer, TV, and VCR are on surge protectors.

12/14/01-Fri.-Sure enough, the yesterday mentioned electrical surges, whether cause or effect, betokened a serious situation. I was doing ablutions in the bathroom when Fran got home that afternoon and smelled burning plastic or wiring. It was quite strong from the computer room's ceiling light fixture area. We shut down the power and called an electrician. He eventually arrived and investigated, finding brown, broken, and burned insulation and partially melted wiring both at the fixture socket and at a switchbox connection. Had these not been detected, we could very well have had a fire. As it is, though the smell of the burned wiring lingers, we just are out about $120 for new fixture, wiring, and labor, and were set back a little in our attempts to get everything essential done before our Christmas trip to Florida, and visiting with Fran's folks. We are due to leave about 9 AM on Thurs., 12/20.

I fixed Fran a simple supper and gave her a mini-massage last night. She seemed to appreciate my efforts.

The bronchial coughing and wheezing problems persist.

12/15/01-Sat.-Last night we finally completed almost all of our gift or gift card purchases and got our Christmas cards ready, which I'll mail today. I'm taking most of the wrapped gifts to my mom's to go under her tree, for when folks get there around or soon after Christmas.

I am on the road, taking my usual coffee break in Georgetown, on the way to Woodway and a visit there with Mom. My brother, Allen, will also be there part of the time. We'll likely also be spending some time with Leila and Horace and their kids, all of whom are involved in a church Christmas program to which Mom and I expect to go.

This would normally be Frances' and my weekend for preparing the next issue of our monthly family-and-investment online newsletter together. But I had miscalculated how many weekends were left and "booked" the trip to Waco (Woodway) for now instead. So, yesterday I wrote up much of the material for the current issue. Fran will put it in while I'm away, along with doing the entire web and graphics design herself, as usual. Then, early Monday, after my return, I'll finish up the text portion. We hope to have it complete by Tuesday, leaving us one more day for tying up loose ends before the Florida trip begins. Fran is even more harried these days than I, since she is still working and busy restoring our computer system after the virus' ravages, in addition to all the other special demands on our time right now. She also came down with an upper respiratory infection and had a painful cold sore, just below one nostril, this week.

All things considered, if we do get the new newsletter issue out on time, it will be a not insignificant feat!

12/18/01-Tues.-The weekend visit went very well. And the newsletter went out today, right on schedule. Neither Fran nor I feel like we have had enough sleep or relaxation for awhile though, in spite of my time away in the Waco area and friends having taken us both out last night to celebrate the retirement. They said they were honoring us both, since Frances gets to retire soon too, now that I'll no longer be working and our assets plus annuity permit a more leisurely lifestyle. Right. When does that start!? Ha.

Fran and I have different driving personalities. Sometimes it causes friction between us, and even threatens worse. I used to teach Defensive Driving and most of the time try to follow this approach. Frances is more aggressive in her road habits. She picked me up at the mechanics' place this morning after I'd dropped my car off. Then we needed to blend with a flow of rush-hour traffic on our way home. Instead of yielding, to a rapidly approaching mass of vehicles that had just started up fairly close to us when their light had changed, though, she "merged" by driving out in front of them, forcing the lead vehicle, plus several behind it, to slow their expected acceleration. The closest vehicle was immediately right behind us and its driver leaning on the horn. She continued her relaxed driving pace. He apparently became rather irate, swinging rapidly around her, swerving in front of our car without sufficient clearance, and then slowing down in front of us. An accident was avoided but not bad tempers. When I suggested better highway etiquette, she would take no responsibility for the incident, dismissively blaming it all on a "typical pickup driver."

Fran has many excellent qualities. Driver courtesy is not one of her strong points. It could get us (or someone else) badly injured or killed one day.

In advance of our Florida trip, I prepared an informal, temporary will this morning. Once we both sign it, it should be found legal if we should die and there is no indication of foul play. (Clearly, the greatest chance of our winding up deceased in the near future comes from travel hazards, and not just because of potential terrorist acts.)

Over the weekend, Allen, our mom, and I watched an exquisite little film via videotape, "Billy Elliot," one I can certainly recommend!

Tonight we're going over for a short visit with Harriet and Carl Gold. They always go all out in their decorations for the holidays and want to show them off to folks.

But Fran is feeling almost completely overwhelmed with all that still needs to be done. Though we'd arranged to visit the Golds, she now regrets it, wishing she had the time for other things. She's also late getting back today, perhaps from more traffic hassles. Wonderful!

12/19/01-Wed.-Up at 6:30 after a restless night. Mild asthma problems. Got a lot done this morning, both for Fran and me, making headway with several misc. chores that were pending before our trip. Fran was away early, after protecting some of her outside plants with plastic (in case of severe weather while we're away), heading off for an instrument she'll need, for doubling in the next Austin Lyric Opera production.

Today's her last day of teaching in 2001. She has about 4 months to go before she too will be a retired person, though she plans to continue performing-gigs while we're still in Austin.

The mutt and I got out, between errands, for a couple-mile walk. Temperatures are cool. It's windy but sunny, a terrific fall morning! Pepper is particularly perky.

The asthma symptoms got worse as morning progressed. Stopped for coffee, which helped. But I'll have to go back on prescription inhalants till I overcome this exacerbation. Had hoped that need not be part of the Florida vacation. Oh well.

After the virus caused our computer to crash, and I began taking over some of Fran's chores as she grappled with that crisis, all bets were off for extra meditation and exercise this month. But I now expect, beginning at the latest as soon as she returns to her teaching schedule, to begin my "health spa" agenda, including at least four miles a day of walking (or an equivalent aerobic workout), excellent diet, and several hours a day of meditation.

12/20/01-Thurs.-We started our drive to Florida about 8:45, just after the worst of rush-hour traffic, on a beautifully cool, clear morning. However, a brown hazy smog hung over Austin. No wonder people here have more respiratory symptoms. Austin is also considered to have among the highest concentrations of allergens of major U.S. cities.

The passage through Orange, the last city before leaving TX, brought mild nostalgia. I lived there for about a year and a half early in the eighties, working as a vocational rehab counselor for the Texas Rehabilitation Commission. My largest clientele were alcohol and drug abusers. The neighboring community of Vidor, part of my territory, was the KKK headquarters. The main employers were the oil refinery or petrochemical industries. Unemployment was over 20%. Spousal abuse, child beatings, suicidal depression, and homicidal rage were all high. I'd been there a few weeks when someone shot a hole in my office window. Several months later one of my car windows was shot out.

I had a girlfriend, Karen, who lived in Beaumont, about 25 miles away. Unlike me, she wanted to stay in the area.

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, I formally consulted a psychic for the first and only time. She told me what I wanted to hear. Among other things, she said I would soon be leaving Orange and moving to Austin.

Within a couple months there was a reduction-in-force by the state, which was having financial difficulties. It was announced that my Orange vocational rehab office was being closed. I was given a choice: apply for a state job in Austin or I'd be out of work in less than three months. Many of us, statewide, put in for the only equivalent level state position then available, as disability examiners. I was one of ten who got the job. I was transferred, effective 5/1/82, to Austin and stayed there with Disability Determination till my retirement, last week. The psychic's reading was a neat coincidence.

Her fortune-telling had also been interesting with respect to my romantic life. She predicted that the first involvement would not last. In fact, Karen and I stayed "together" off-and-on through 1983. But she had been married before, apparently to a real loser, had a hip deformity, which shortened one leg and perhaps caused her to lack self-confidence, and had a young son whom her parents helped with a lot. Karen became very anxious every time I tried to get her to move to Austin, even as my bride. We drifted apart instead of closer after I had left.

It was really more complicated than that sounds. For instance, I liked her son a lot; but could also get pretty impatient with his tantrums. I thought she spoiled him too much. Even though I very much wanted kids, I was also not sure I'd make a good step-dad. I'm certain she sensed my ambivalence and that it was a significant factor in her own.

It's too bad that hindsight is so much more acute than forward looking. I think Karen and I could have worked things out and been happy together if we'd just both been more willing then to make the commitment.

But it was not to be. Were our stars just crossed? Back in 12/81, the psychic predicted a lifelong relationship with someone else instead, someone tall, artistic, very strong-willed, highly intelligent, with an unusual last name, a performer, and with quite long hair. In 1984, I met Frances, and we hit it off. As with many couples, we had an initial strong attraction that was at once physical, intellectual, and emotional, and which we both called "love," but this phase was superceded by a period of vehement disagreements and upsets over then apparently outrageous, completely unreasonable value and personality differences, followed eventually by a somewhat more realistic assessment and acceptance of each other's perceived assets and faults, though intense disagreements still occur at times. Interestingly enough, she also fulfilled all of the psychic's predicted characteristics. Probably just happenstance, plus the power of suggestion. But fortune-tellers get referrals for much less accuracy than this.

We were married in 1985 and, in spite of significant downs and ups in the relationship, seem likely to stay together.

12/21/01-Fri.-We crossed into Alabama early this morning.

Last night Fran and I had a big clash during one of her turns at driving, this time going nearly eighty miles per hour and refusing to decrease her speed even after I'd called her on it.

At 9:45 AM, we entered Florida, state of my birth.

Asthma symptoms have continued despite ongoing treatments, a damned nuisance.

At 5:55 PM (their time), we reached Fran's folks' place in Ocala, FL, our destination.

Later. Just spent a relaxed evening with Frances and her parents, Linda and Mike. We went for an easy walk while looking at Christmas decorations around their community, had supper, and hung out (with computer, TV, and chatting) till quite late. Feeling exhausted. Time for bed!

12/22/01-Sat.-This morning Fran, Linda, and I drove over, with Pepper, and hiked for a little over five miles at Marshall Swamp, a county park. Unfortunately for the dog, Florida has been in a drought and the "swamp" was completely dry. She got a little dehydrated but was OK after having a drink later.

We took her next for her annual shots. (It could cost us $90 for them in Austin, but we'd seen we might get them today for $15 at a feed store, between 11 AM and 1 PM.)

Fran and Linda next drove us around looking at decorated fiberglass horses, a project put on by the City of Ocala.

Then we had late light lunches, back at Fran's folks' place. She and her mom worked on a crossword puzzle while Mike and I watched football on TV.

About mid-afternoon, Fran went with Linda to another park, this time for some bicycling and photography. The men, made of less hearty stuff apparently, stayed home for football watching, naps, and (in my case) meditation plus treating my asthma.

This evening we had a simple but tasty meal again. Then Frances did the dishes while I took Pepper on her after supper poop-run (with all feces properly retrieved, bagged, and disposed of in the outside garbage). Next Frances and Linda did stuff on the computer till time to get ready for bed. I took care of my nightly ablutions, dietary supplements, and asthma treatments, then worked on investment planning while watching TV with Mike.

The A&E Biography Channel's countdown to their #1 bio of 2001 was on. It provided an interesting summary of some of the significant events and personalities of the year.

12/23/01-Sun.-Had an interesting dream a few hours ago: instead of just Pepper sleeping as usual toward the bottom of our bed, there was another creature snoozing with her. Then she was alone again and I understood it was because my mom or my aunt, Kim, had just died. I wondered how folks would let me know and if they had the phone number for Fran's folks.

Strange social interactions. Fran was snugly and affectionate on awakening today. Since her dad had planned to stay at home, mainly watching football, while she and her mom wanted to go to a botanical garden park, and I am trying to avoid the sun (due to skin cancer), have been to the park before, and am not that interested in spending most of the day there again, I decided to stay home and hang out with Mike.

But, on hearing this, he decided he would go to the park with the women, even though he (now about 77) has complaints about his heart, chest, legs, and back, uses a cane when he goes any distance at all, and feels he cannot walk quickly.

I asked for a key and map, so I could go into town while they're away and then get into the house on my return, only to discover from Mike's snappish comments, his irritability evident but not its cause, that now, instead, he was not going to the park after all.

Fran, meanwhile, as if taking her cue from her dad, was bitchy and rude as well. In all of this my manner and comments had been polite and neutral. Of course, I am no angel. At times I can be a "difficult" enough personality myself. But at Val's folks' place I'm on my best behavior. In the circumstances, others' reactions seem puzzling.

Linda left me a key anyway and suggested I take it if I went out, even though Mike had grumpily insisted he would be there.

So, I left soon after the ladies, driving over to Winn-Dixie for some more low-fat fruit and snack items, and then sat and sipped a cup of coffee before heading back, hoping Mike might be in a better mood by the time I returned.

Later - Mike was feeling more sociable once I'd gotten to his place. I checked and answered e-mail messages while he watched more football.

Then we both took naps. Mine was short. While he continued his snooze, I meditated for an hour in the front room, using "just sitting..." as a focusing tool. Lots of distracting physical pain, though.

Once Mike was up, I checked out mutual fund calculations online. It is evident that, even at its simplest, working out our taxes in retirement will be a daunting task.

Fran and Linda returned about 5:30, with enthusiastic anecdotes about their day at the botanical garden and other interesting experiences, like seeing hawks, sandhill cranes, and ten alligators.

We had a great supper. Mike then continued watching TV. The women worked on crossword puzzles. I calculated our assets and annual budgets under various scenarios. (At a minimum, if necessary, we could spend $50,000 a year indefinitely, unless our country suffers the equivalent of another Great Depression.)

12/24/01-Mon.-Christmas Eve-Fran and I slept badly last night. It was hot and dry in our guest bedroom. Mike had turned up the thermostat before we'd gone to bed.

Along with the fatigue today, my asthma was producing significant symptoms.

We drove to Tampa (my birthplace) this morning and spent much of the day at The Florida Aquarium there. It's a nice one, with wetland, coral reef, beach, and bay exhibits and tanks.

On the way home, we saw some sandhill cranes, impressive birds.

A short time later, we had a blowout. Still on secondary roads, we were fortunately not up to 80 miles an hour as we had been, earlier in the day, on the interstate with Linda driving. We were able to pull over to the side safely. The tire looks ruined.

Between the three of us, Linda, Fran, and me (Mike and Pepper having stayed home), with a little of their brains, in quickly interpreting the new Ford Explorer's instructions, and of my brawn, in removing the tight lugs and lifting the spare into place, we changed the tire with reasonable dispatch and got back to Ocala in time for supper.

My intended low-cholesterol diet is not being strictly maintained. Yesterday, Linda got us fried chicken for supper. They assured me it would be OK if the skin were taken off. Tonight there was some communication breakdown. I had told Linda I would have tomato soup but not an offered grilled-cheese sandwich. Apparently this did not register, because she fixed me the sandwich too. Meanwhile, Frances (outside her mom's hearing) insisted I now eat the unwanted sandwich, since her mother had fixed it for me. As I said, I'm trying to stay on my best behavior. It was good!

Tonight, Fran and her mom continued playing on the computer system, Mike watched more TV, and I read, completed evening ablutions, and then got this journal entry up-to-date.

In an early morning dream today, I get caught up in a civil war. There's something about a flood. Then, among the survivors, there's a need to put together an impromptu defense, with the odds against us substantial. There is the vivid impression of how little are our chances and that the firepower likely to be arrayed against us will be horrendous, with enough rapidly fired rounds or shrapnel to riddle our bodies many times over. There is some question about whether I would go ahead with this, seemingly a suicide mission. I begin, though, to do so. But then I awaken. (Did I "die to live" in this somewhat more real existence? Is there another, for which this is the dream?)

This morning Fran and Linda reported nightmares that woke them up last night, both involving a basement. Interesting coincidence.

12/25/01-Tues.-Chistmas Day-We got started in a leisurely way but had our traditional gift exchange and opening, starting about 9:30 this morning, with Pepper, as usual, comically in the thick of everything.

This afternoon all four of us, Linda, Mike, Frances, and I, plus Pepper, went to Silver River State Park, for hiking, feeding fish with bread (saw minnows, bluegills, large bass - dramatically feeding on the bluegills - and musk turtles), visiting a museum, and seeing a replica of a pioneer farm.

The Silver River was beautiful, the spring-fed water clear and deep. Visibility was excellent, in places all the way to the bottom, 20-30 feet below. We heard owls and saw other interesting birds, including a piliated woodpecker, cormorants, and a pair of anhingas.

Back home, Linda and Mike made our Christmas dinner.

Once again today, the asthma problems have been a nuisance, with sinus trouble, cough, extra fluid coming up from the lungs, and swollen, painful pharynx and bronchial tissues. I've taken everything pharmaceutical I can, both prescription and over-the-counter, to no avail. It is disconcerting.

The weather now is cool, wet, and overcast, so at least there was no worry about too much solar radiation on my cancer-sensitive skin.

Also, thanks to the drought, and in contrast to our two prior visits in FL to see Fran's folks, there has been no problem from mosquitoes.

Tonight after supper, Fran and her mom alternately played on the computer and did 3D puzzles, while Mike watched TV and I searched for and started listing 4-star movies (to rent on video), from a critic's book on over 15,000 films, through 1995. Fran's sister, Trudy, also called to wish folks a Merry Christmas and chatted with Linda for awhile.

We all turned in about 11 PM.

12/26/01-Wed.-The heat was on fairly high again last night. I woke up about ten times between midnight and 3 AM, then would take a long while getting back to sleep, too hot.

I finally went out on the attached porch, a glass-enclosed sun room that is unheated, and tried sleeping on the couch there. However, though the temperature under a couple blankets was perfect, I was treated to a constantly changing light and sound show. The house heater fan motor was nearby outside and loud as it kept coming on. There were also surprisingly intrusive traffic sounds. Bizarrely, the street light by the community clubhouse, just across the street, kept going off and then coming on. Even with my eyes closed and the temperature ideal, I could never get used to the repeated alternations between light and dark and/or relatively quiet vs. quite noisy, and so got little sleep there either.

This morning, things at Fran's folks' place got underway about 8 AM. But, after our ablutions and breakfast were out of the way, everything was on hold while we waited for a chance to get the Ford Explorer's blown tire replaced and the new one on in lieu of the spare, which took till early afternoon.

Later - The weather today is brisk, windy, and sunny. Though often feeling cold, we had a good time at Silver Springs Park (with rides, flowering plants, lots of playful animals - perhaps more frisky due to our current weather, nature talks, holiday lights after dark, special zoo features, and silly, fun entertainment, such as a short musical, "Swamp Critters"), but my asthma has been acting up still more, with lots of alarming coughing, congestion deep in the bronchial tubes, and wheezing.

After thinking about it awhile, I reluctantly told Linda and Frances I need to take it easy tomorrow rather than participating with them in yet another long, on-the-go day of driving, looking at numerous gardens, dealing with the cold and sun, waiting uncomfortably long periods before being able to go to the bathroom, little chance for rest and relaxation, looking at yet another festival of lights, and, as occurred tonight too, not getting back till late.

12/27/01-Thurs.-The ladies left for their busy day about 9 AM and are not expected back for twelve hours or so.

Mike and I are apparently alike in feeling more comfortable alone than in the other's company. Again today, on hearing I was not going with Linda and Fran, he announced he would join them, though previously it was understood he'd be staying home. Actually, it was just a mild reaction, from which he quickly came to his senses. Then he and I stayed out of each other's way through most of the day. He went to their community clubhouse for awhile. And I spent about half our time "together" in the guest bedroom, taking naps or meditating. I also went with Pepper for another two-mile walk.

The more relaxed agenda helped with my asthma, which was at least no worse today.

12/28/01-Fri.-This morning Linda, Frances, and I drove over to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Mike and Pepper stayed home.

My bladder gave me problems, as usual these days, both going to and coming from the park, as the women found numerous opportunities for stopping and delaying further our finally getting to a restroom.

On the return trip, my back was also acting up, with associated hip and leg pain. Nonetheless, the asthma, again, remained under relatively good control.

The Homosassa Springs experience itself was quite pleasant, with great, close-up, entertaining views of manatees, a hippo, alligators, wood ducks, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, a gray fox, a Texas cougar, hawks, eagles, owls, bobcats, river otters, white-tailed deer, and several kinds of fish.

Later I treated everyone (including Mike this time) to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet at the popular Barnhill's Restaurant. The vittles were quite good and well received.

12/29/01-Sat.-We all slept well last night, having gone to bed early.

We got underway on our return trip at 9 (8 AM Texas time), hoping to reach Baton Rouge or Lake Charles, LA, by tonight.

Though Linda had squeezed in about twice as much as would have been the best blend of interesting and relaxing activities, Mike's personality made things a little more tense than they otherwise would have been, and my physical condition was a significantly limiting factor, it was, over all, a good visit and at least as pleasant as when we were in FL together last, in December of '97 or '98.

Later - (Somewhere in the FL Panhandle) As so often when we're at close quarters, needing to coordinate on something for a long time, and both somewhat tired, Fran and I were frequently bickering on our return trip today, of course each one thinking the problems were the other person's fault.

12/31/01-Mon.-New Year's Eve-Despite the above difficulty, the ordeal of getting ourselves, our dog, and our stuff conveyed safely and efficiently from central Florida to central Texas went with relatively few hitches. It seemed to be hardest on our twelve-year-old dog and my 58-year-old bod. My back was acting up painfully. Pepper seemed exhausted. Perhaps she was also depressed over Fran's folks no longer being around. They just dote on her. She almost worships them.

We'd stayed overnight in Lafayette, LA, well beyond our target for the first day of our trip home. On the way out, our stop had been in Gulfport, MS. Apologies to the folks who live in that area of the nation. But, for us, both experiences gave us the impression we had stopped, if not in the rectum, at least in one armpit of the country. Off the freeway, in both LA and MS, the road systems are confusing, complicated, poorly lit and maintained, and often unsafe. At restaurants, it was essentially not possible to locate a non-smoking area that did not still reek or to find a low-cholesterol meal. The overall atmosphere was poor, smoky, and country-western or Cajan, with loud, irritating music, and an emphasis on fried, greasy, and/or barbequed foods. It seemed consistent that the petrochemical and gambling industries apparently provide the major sources of income.

After back in Austin late yesterday afternoon, we unpacked, took stock of phone messages (appears the news from my 12/12 biopsy is not good and that I'll need a big chunk of my nose removed due to a cancer recurrence), checked out e-mails (over 70), and opened gifts from relatives, friends, and each other.

Fran surprised me with a precious gem, a little book, in her artistic calligraphy, filled with beautifully written accounts of all her dream memories. This is but the latest in a series of such creative expression presents, starting, in 1986, with a self-illustrated book of true anecdotes, mainly her childhood observations in nature. Each has been a pearl.

Today and tomorrow I'm hoping to stay busy to keep my mind off the likely nose surgery situation. Of course, there is nothing I can do about it, and worry does not help anything. But I have never had to have nasal surgery before (if freezing off small pre-cancerous lesions with liquid nitrogen does not count) and am definitely not emotionally ready for it.

Fran, trying to get me to smile, suggests if they have to take much off my nose she's sure they'll fill in the hole with a graft from somewhere else, probably my ample ass or penis. Then, if I need to blow my nose, it would also feel like scratching my bum or rubbing my whanger. Kissing could be a bit problematic. (If my nose starts getting longer, people might think I'd been telling lies.)

As both the calendar year and this pre-retirement version of "Steps" wind down, I reflect on the all too human folly of dwelling on expectations and fears.

Most all the angst I generated over my last state job ultimately proved unfounded. I wound up that position in good standing, despite all my worries and felt frustrations, retiring with substantially greater benefits than anticipated and doing so significantly earlier than expected even as recently as a year ago.

Notwithstanding the markets' volatility, we also completed the year within a hair's breadth of the level intended for our retirement savings.

Did anxiety over such issues improve the outcomes? Probably not. So too with the major sources of disagreement with Fran in the last twelve months.

And, natural as they are, concerns over the imminent alterations a surgeon may make in my face are equally unlikely to have merit. Nor, even in the relative, not to mention the absolute, scheme of things have they a good basis. Kenneth, the father of one of my sister-in-laws, not that much older than I, has just been diagnosed with a far advanced cancerous growth on one cheek, with inoperable metastases in his lungs. By comparison, my basal cell carcinoma situation is a pin prick.

Yet, both for me as an individual and us as a people, it is all too easy to fret too much and over the wrong things. While we might have had more care over our spiritual lives, why we exist at all, the nature of death, how we relate to one another, the best uses of our talents and resources, or what is true, our hopes and concerns instead seem to follow established patterns that are limited, even petty.

In the global perspective, though the events of 9/11/01 seem to have at least temporarily shattered our relative innocence (as we went about our charmed lives), the responses to that shock appear still nationalistic, at a time when the state may have largely passed its usefulness. If the narrowly perceived and conceived ends of the country are used to justify a setting aside of vital goals and means in the interest of humanity as a whole or life itself on this interconnected planet, Gaia, have we really best served the needs of our citizens?

You may know a people, I believe, by the scope of their insights, the depth of their visions. We must have a vision large enough for our new millennium.

This may require a new kind of patriotism, one that pledges allegiance to an entire world, under whatever is our highest conception of an inclusive god and to the truth that is our very foundation, That Which Is.

Otherwise, we might, for instance, embroil ourselves in conflicts that help "authorize" and catalyze unintended consequences out of all proportion to the causes for which they were begun and which do little to further the ends that may be of most lasting benefit to us all.

In the end, the main folly of both our individual or nation-state sets of expectations and fears is that they are but a symptom of a false assumption, the belief we are in control.

Not only are we not in charge. We ourselves, as distinct entities, separate from all the rest of reality, do not even exist.

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