Saturday, June 2, 2018

Spring Vacacay (con't (con't))

The plans for our final day of fun had been left deliberately vague, since we knew we were doing a hike that might leave us in a less-than-able state. We were, indeed, sore on getting up and moving around a bit, and decided that another vigorous hike was probably beyond us. As well, an extended drive would not be very comfortable, so that meant that Point Reyes was out. Then Tanya suggested Rodeo Beach, which we had been to before and liked quite a bit. I was immediately sold. We packed up a picnic lunch and set off.

The drive to Rodeo Beach is kind of fun. There's a one-way tunnel that you have to wait on, so getting there requires patience and dedication. Beyond that tunnel, you drive through Fort Cronkhite, a World War II mobilization post, one of the few remaining in the United States at this point.

The beach was more crowded than we'd ever seen it. Luckily, it had been mostly abandoned the other times we'd visited, so the only thing that was really in short supply was viable parking. We managed to find an empty parking spot about a quarter mile from the beachhead, parked, then made our way to the beach.

Breezier than expected!
The beach itself is not very large, but has decent waves and good opportunities to climb to some overlooks. We opted not to climb anywhere; instead, we found a spot to the left of the bridge pictured above, set up our towels (which, when combined, made for a serviceable blanket), and started laying about.

Nice place to lay about!
The wind kept the day interesting from the comfort perspective, but otherwise, it was simply perfect. I don't think I've got the skill to describe what it's like to just sit on a beach for a few hours and do absolutely nothing but gaze out at the ocean, listen to the waves and wind, and watch a few people splash around, surf a bit, and build sandcastles that their puppy dogs would inevitably knock over. I pretended to read, but the truth is, I just sat there for the most part. It's more than relaxing -- closer to meditative than that. I loved our afternoon on the beach just as much as the hike the day before.
Tanya needed a new phone background. This might be a keeper!
There were even a few people there with kites. Unfortunately, the pictures with the kites turned out looking like little specs of birds up in the sky, which should give you an idea of how far up they were. I distinctly heard one guy say that he'd let out the entire line, which for a conventional kite was probably 120 feet or so. The one we were most interested in looked exactly like a shark, except for the fact that when it was 120 feet up in the sky, it resembled nothing more so than a large black bird.

Looking at kites, making duck faces.
Eventually, the sun descended enough for the chill in the constant breeze to become slightly uncomfortable. That, and we ran out of snacks. We reluctantly decided to pack up and head back to the rental, knowing that this was the last excursion on what had been a short but supremely sweet Spring Vacacay.

The entire set of adventures went well beyond our expectations. I'm not sure which one I liked best. They each fulfilled a very different kind of need, and the diversity kept us well entertained. Given the chance to do it again, in exactly the same way, I would, no question.

And we really don't have a summer vacacay scheduled, although I do have a company trip to Denver during the first week of August, so you never know... ;)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Spring Vacacay (con't)

Day 2 of 3 dawned bright and early. I mean that literally. San Rafael is far enough north that the beginnings of summertime mean the planet's axial tilt is sharp enough to allow the sun to rise at least an hour earlier than I'm accustomed to. The result was an unexpected beauty at 05:15. The saving grace was that San Rafael is also two hours behind our normal timezone, so it felt like 07:15.

We got out fairly early the second day. Our destination was Stinson Beach and some of the hiking trails around it. The area was breezy and cool, which was counted as a good omen. The planned route was a little ambitious at about 9 miles, considering that we hadn't done any hiking any recent months, and we still weren't sure how well our knees would hold up. Despite any reservations we might've been secretly harboring, we ventured forth with smiles on our faces and hope in our hiking hearts!

The fools didn't know what they were in for...
The first trail we took (Dispsea Trail) led up the mountain. What we didn't realize was that there was a race of some kind on that trail in the opposite direction, coming down the mountain. As such, we wound up spending a decent amount of time on the ascent standing respectfully aside for runners, some of which had clearly taken tumbles during the race. One poor girl looked like she'd been on the losing end of a prize fight. Her slow and staggering descent served as a solemn reminder of yet another reason to NEVER RUN A RACE EVER AGAIN EVER!

The area is heavily wooded and wonderful to walk through. I've always liked the color of light as it makes its way through the foliage to the forest floor. I especially like it when its also illuminating a certain Tanya...

Seriously, have you ever seen anything so lovely? The woods are nice too.
After a couple of hours on this trail, we made it to the top of the mountain. The ascent had been a gradual 1500 feet or so, and we felt pretty good after making it up. It was even cooler and breezier at the top of the mountain; I wish this blogging software supported video better (or at all without hacking the html), because I've got a cool clip of the fog rolling around through the trees, sounding exactly like rain.

One quick note: there were lots of bicyclers at the top as well, although they all seemed to be street bikers. Driving up those winding roads was challenging enough. Riding up them is something I couldn't be paid to do.

The path back down was along Matt Davis Trail, and it was dramatic and even breath-taking in places. The air was still quite foggy despite the strong breeze, so the trail felt very empty as well as mysterious. I'll stop telling and start showing a little.

That's fog, not sky. What's over that ridge?!
Surprise! It was a bunch more fog!
The fog wasn't at a constant level; it flowed over the landscape here while rising above us there. It almost seemed to stick to the tops of some of the trees.

Three hairs and some air to paint all this!
(If you don't understand that caption, I urge you to watch more Bob Ross)

The path on this trail wandered in an out of the trees quite a bit. The fog obscured our view anytime we were in the open, and gave re-entering the trees a slightly ominous feeling.

No, that's OK -- you can go first, honey.
After another couple of hours of walking through this, our legs were shaky, but we emerged from the mists and made it back to the beach!

Civilization! Well, as civilized as Stinson Beach can be...
For anyone that has access to this area and hasn't walked it, I STRONGLY encourage you to do so. It was one of the coolest walks I've been on, and I would love to do it again. We actually considered going back there the next day, but quickly realized two things: first, we were going to be sore and foot-tender after today's walk, and second, we had other outings to attend to.

Last stop: Rodeo Beach!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Spring Vacacay!

Followers of this blog might have noticed a trend forming over the past several years: spring expeditions to fun/interesting/outdoors-y locations. In 2014, we went hiking in Utah. 2015 took us to southern California for work, but we got out a little bit. 2016 was a Seattle adventure, and 2017 was the huge London blowout. This year, we really didn't think we were going to go anywhere. Work schedules were such that it didn't appear to be in the cards. Then, Tanya's company unexpectedly scheduled an offsite in northern California (south of San Francisco), which was going to wrap up on a Thursday. We realized we could make a long weekend of it, and our Spring Vacacay tradition was saved!


After spending several days writing Wifeless Husband Haikus, I joined Tanya in sunny San Francisco. We drove north to San Rafael, where we had booked a VRBO with a Prince theme. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not -- Prince stuff was everywhere. I wish I'd taken a picture of the gate, because it had the Prince symbol on it. As it is, I'll leave you with this photo, from the living room looking into the bedroom.

Pringles are ours, not Prince's. Also not shown: all of the purple LED lighting.
First days for us typically entail getting to the lodgings, finding a place to eat, and getting to the grocery and sundries store. The rental was amazing well-provisioned, meaning we didn't have any essential sundries to pick up -- only breakfast foods and snacks.

We headed out for dinner. The evening meal was provided by Chalet Basque, which was a lucky find in that it was only a mile or two from the rental. Tummies full, we procured groceries for breakfast and some other things we'd be taking on our hike(s), and a bottle of wine, because how can you not have a bottle of wine at all times this close to wine country?


A quick note on breakfast: we typically take breakfasts at the rental. This one had a very pleasing view, so on the first morning we were there, we decided to have breakfast on the patio. Some folks might not find it to be worth the effort; those folks would be wrong.

Eggs, bacon, tea, and english muffins with butter and jam. EVERY MORNING PLEASE!!

Wine Country

The first real day of Spring Vacacay was centered around a sojourn into wine country. 

Napa or Sonoma? Why not both! :-D

We had scheduled a wine and food pairing for early lunch at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma Valley and arrived in time to take a short stroll around the grounds.
I was told there would be food here...?
Someone is pretty clever with reflections!
Lunch was five wines, each paired with a thoughtfully, elegantly, and excellently prepared food course. I could have had more of each (yes, food AND wine). If you're the kind of person that likes the idea of going to wine country but doesn't particularly want to drive (or get driven) to a bunch of separate tasting rooms, I strongly suggest something like this. Over the course of a couple of hours, we got to have good conversation, learn about the wine and the chef's processes, and enjoy foods and wines in ways we wouldn't have otherwise. Two sloshy thumbs up, would consume again!

Our next destination was Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley. Yes, it's a real, Tuscan-style castle, and was very crowded when we arrived. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea we did -- go to wine country on a Friday afternoon and tootle around a castle.

Roses and dragons and castles! Oh my!

Thanks to my impeccable timing, we got there 45 minutes before our guided tour and tasting was supposed to begin. But, as luck would have it, when we checked in the greeter asked us if we wanted to upgrade to the cheese and wine pairing tour for a few extra bucks. They had an opening for two people on the tour that was supposed to start five minutes later, so I think we got a slight discount. We, of course, said yes. As I've already stated: wine and food are vastly superior to just wine.

Our guide had been at the winery almost since the beginning, so she knew everything about everything there. The castle was constructed from stones imported from Italy (not entirely, but in lots of places), all of the metalwork was done by an actual Italian blacksmith, all of the artwork was done by Italian artists, etc.

Hand-painted walls, hand-forged fixtures... 
Our fearless guide, and knower of all the things!
The owner loves dragons!

The castle had four levels above ground and four below. All of the barrels, as you may have guessed, were below ground. It's a veritable maze down there! If you got lost, at least you'd not get thirsty!

Barrels for days!
As the tour ended, we were led to a private tasting room where we partook of particularly fine wine and cheese. The pairings were supposed to be either "compare" or "contrast." Instead, we all tried all of them -- all the wines, all the cheeses, and adored them all.

From the inner courtyard. The private tasting room is in the lower right.
Maybe the most surprising thing we learned is that we actually like some ros├ęs, and for me, the darker, the better!

Upon finishing with this winery, we realized there was a mountain drive near where we were, and we love those kinds of views. Unfortunately for us, there were no scenic overlooks. If you wanted to get that view, you had to earn it by parking and hiking. Given that we were already planning to hike the next day, we decided to call it a day.

As an aside: we originally had dinner reservations in Sonoma, but by the time we'd finished eating a large lunch and just south of a ton of crackers and cheese along with an un-disclosable amount of wine, we realized that we weren't going to be hungry for dinner. Rather than force another fine meal on ourselves, we went back to the rental and snacked a little later in the evening. Lesson learned -- late dinner reservations are a necessity when lunching in wine country.

Next up: Hiking!

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Half Marathon That Wasn't

The last time I mentioned "running" in this blog, it was July of 2017 (Summer Running). In that entry, I mentioned that we were preparing for the Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon, which was held on March 25th of this year. As it turns out, we did not run that race, and the lessons learned leading up to the race are probably worth mentioning, if for no other reason than as a cautionary tale for anyone that has dreams of running any moderate- or long-distance races.

November 25, 2017, Plano Pacers Turkey Runoff

This was the first preparatory race Tanya and I ran. It was a short distance on purpose -- we wanted to try something pretty informal and not too taxing for our first race experience. Full disclosure: I ran track in high school (although, admittedly, not very well), and had even run a 5k a couple years prior. Even so, it was good to get some race-centric jitters worked out. How'd I do, you ask?

Faster than a herd of turtles!

I felt really good about these results. It was the fastest time I'd ever run for a 5k, and I felt like I could have gone even faster. As a result of this race, both Tanya and I looked forward to the half marathon. We still had four months to train, had an ambitious plan of how to get there, and were positive things would work out fantastically.

February 3, 2018, Hot Chocolate 15k

Then the bad times started. We were training along pretty well, considering it was winter. Twelve runs in December, varying in duration and intensity. The longest run that month was just under 10k, which seemed pretty good to me, given our next race was a 15k. Then, on January 4, about thirty minutes into our run, I felt something go wacky with my right calf. What I first thought was a cramp turned out to be a mild strain, which I further aggravated by not allowing it to heal. I tried running again on January 11, and it tightened up again after twenty minutes. I realized I wasn't right, and took a longer break. I still wanted to try to run the 15k, but was pretty skeptical that I'd have the legs for it. On January 24, I did a very easy, 30-minute run, and felt just fine at 13:30/mile. A few days later, I ran 10k at that same, slow pace, and still felt fine. The 15k was a week away. Given that I felt OK, I figured I'd give it a try, just at a really slow pace.

I won't keep you in suspense. The race went better than I expected. It was ridiculously chilly in the morning when we got there, but by the time we were running, I was plenty warm.

Finished! And still upright!
That was a long race. It was 5k further than I'd ever run, and I was pretty beat. I managed 11:00/mile, which was way faster than I thought I'd be able to run. And, as with the 5k, the results left me very hopeful about the half marathon. We still had almost two months to train, after all.

March 25, 2018: Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon

Given the amount of time we had left, we needed to increase our mileage by about a mile per week. Tanya had a plan all mapped out that would make it happen. The only problem was, she was starting to feel twinges of pain in her knee. On longer runs, she'd get 8 miles in and have to pull up. I was also having trouble getting extra miles in. February 27th's run of ~8 miles was pretty challenging, but I managed to complete it at the slower ~13 min/mile pace. The following weekend, the long run ended for me at 7.85 miles (12:46 pace). I was beginning to think I wasn't going to be able to get the mileage in, that my legs just couldn't take the pounding. Tanya's knee was continuing to bother her as well.

Our last long run in preparation for the half marathon was on March 17th. I only made it a little longer than 5 miles in (11:40 pace) before I had to stop from calf cramping. I felt like it really was a cramp instead of a strain, but didn't want to take any chances. Tanya, on the other hand, ran for another almost 4 miles before she was forced to stop. Her knee wasn't going to allow her to run any further. With the half marathon only eight days away, we realized we weren't going to make it. Or, rather, that we could try to make it, but it would be foolish to potentially injure ourselves any more than we already had in order to try any particular race around Dallas.

Lessons Learned

So, in the end, we didn't run the race, and actually took three weeks off from running in an effort to allow for better recovery. Even after that, Tanya's knee was still bothering her some. We've decided to switch our exercise routines to be more core-centric and work on flexibility and strength.

So what did we learn?

  • Give yourself LOTS of time to prepare. Our training plans ranged from twelve to sixteen weeks. Set aside at least that amount of time. And expect that you'll miss a bit, so you might give yourself an extra week or two just in case.
  • Stick to the plan. Do the workouts -- ALL of them. If the plan says to run four times a week, don't skip what you think might be an unnecessary recovery run. If the plan says to cross train on your off day, do it. Don't take that day off. These plans are typically created by people that know what they're doing. Don't think you know better than them about the training plan (although you certainly know more about how your body is reacting to the plan, and you might need to tap the brake or accelerator accordingly).
  • Don't short circuit the plan. We knew we were going to have to cut corners in order to get the mileage in for the half marathon, and it just didn't work. Instead, we should have a) started training earlier, or b) picked a race that was further out. Our bodies simply couldn't adapt/adjust/recover quickly enough, and in the end it injured us. Speaking of...
  • Injuries happen. When you push your body, bad things can happen to it. This is more true of people that aren't accustomed to rigorous training, but are working up to it. When injuries happen, deal with any disappointment you might have in not meeting your goal, but allow yourself to heal and recover. There's no race for which the reward is worth permanently hurting yourself that I know of. Then again, I'm not very imaginative about these things. However, being able to walk comfortably in my golden years is more important to me than getting a piece of cheesy metal today.
  • Short distance is our style. We feel like 5 and 10k races are probably about as much as we want to run, with the occasional 15k thrown in for good measure, once we've gotten back into the habit of running regularly. 
To the last point above, the Hot Chocolate was definitely worth running. After the race, you get a bunch of chocolate and marshmallows and stuff. And during the race, they have hot chocolate at the aide stations. And, once we feel like our bodies can handle it, we'll start running again. As I said last year, running in Texas in the summer is a bit like going to a sauna and doing high-knees instead of just sweating -- it's not impossible, but it's certainly less than ideal.

Maybe we'll wait until autumn to start running again... :-D

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Do NOT use Agile! (sometimes)

A good friend of mine received some distressing news recently. Her client was "migrating" to Agile methodologies, and wanted to use Agile to run their project. She had a theoretical understanding of what Agile is, but no practical idea of how to implement it. She asked if we could talk through it, and I agreed.

The discussion was really frustrating. About three minutes into the description of her project (including the people and politics involved), I realized that an Agile approach to their project was fraught with peril. It reminded me of something that you won't hear me say very much: there are times when it is a BAD idea to use Agile, or at least, unnecessary to do so if there's any organizational inertia.

Let's cover a couple of non-negative situations where Agile isn't a necessity to successful project delivery.

Short Projects

Projects that would typically encompass only one or two Agile iterations are probably easily handled via any methodology. As such, don't feel like you have to jump through all the ceremonial and artifact-centric hoops that are required for most Agile approaches. To be clear, you CAN run these projects in an Agile manner, but it's not necessary. Note that software package/solution spikes fall into this category for me (since they take anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks at most).

Simple Projects

A short project isn't necessarily simple, and a long project isn't necessarily complex. I'm defining "simple" projects as projects that are solving problems that have already been solved in well-known ways, or projects whose outcomes aren't very important. R&D projects might fall into this category. For me, secondary ETL projects are commonly in this category: a client needs to add a new data feed to an extant data stream, and the input mechanism is going to be the same as the original one. This is probably pretty simple, and doesn't mandate an Agile approach.

Fixed Triple Constraints Projects

For projects where each side of the triple constraint triangle are truly fixed, Agile approaches aren't necessary. Contracts with governmental agencies might be this way, for example. Projects where the budget is fixed with a hard deadline and a specific scope can succeed with a Waterfall approach. I would still argue that the team *could* improve delivery iteratively via introspection and subsequent changes, but the project could still be successfully delivered without this.

Alright, now let's get into the less happy reasons to avoid Agile. Note that none of the following reasons are indictments -- Agile practitioners should also be pragmatists, and that's where these observations come from.

Teams Lacking An Agile Spirit

Not everyone can embrace change. Not everyone is confident enough to be kindly yet firmly honest with their teammates. Not everyone cares enough to do more than "their share." Not everyone wants to take on the responsibility of self-direction and organization. That's all OK -- Agile really isn't for everyone. If you have team members that are REALLY against Agile practices, it might not be worth trying. Or, you could see if there is another team on which those folks would fit better (which would be my advise). However, sometimes there aren't *any* teams that want to do Agile, because...

Organizations Lacking An Agile Spirit

Some organizations hear about Agile, send people to training, and then try to become Agile by using all of the Agile tools without understanding that Agile is a way of thinking about solving problems and interacting with people. Most of the organizations I've gone into trying to do Agile transformations (moving from traditional to Agile approaches) fall into this unfortunate category. They try to fit their current roles into Agile role titles. They try to create a Gantt chart on an Agile information radiator. They don't understand that Agile is about doing something fundamentally different, and instead fall into the trap of doing something operationally familiar with new tools.

Organizations Where Agile Has No C-Level Support

If you want to make a transformation from traditional to Agile project approaches, you *have to* have high-level executive support. The change is painful for most organizations, and there is typically incredible inertia in every aspect. Having someone high up that can mandate the changes until they are done makes this more possible. The fundamental problem with Agile approaches when no muckety muck is directing the change is that too many people/things in the organization can accidentally or intentionally sabotage the efforts.

Back to the discussion with my friend...

We wound up going through the twelve principles described in the Agile Manifesto. The groups involved with her project could legitimately enact a couple of them, had a chance of adhering to a couple more, but would absolutely fail to adhere to at least half of them. If you an go through that list and be honest about your ability to live them out, you should have a pretty good idea of whether your project is a good candidate for an Agile approach. At the very least, you'll have lots of good talking points about places/things you'll need to change in order to do Agile projects in the future.

In my friend's case, I suspect that the client mainly wanted to "do Agile" with them because they wanted visibility into why it took so long and cost so much to do what I would classify as "simple" projects. I advised my friend to talk to the client and ask if they simply wanted to be on some daily standups to see where the churn happens. Something as simple as that might satisfy the client without having to do a full-blown Agile implementation. I haven't heard back yet, but suspect that this is the track they will follow.

So the next time someone unexpectedly wants to do an Agile project with you, take the time to make sure it's a good candidate. Look for the pitfalls of team and organizational challenges. If the project clears the Agile principles pretty well, go for it. If not, it's worth more discussion before launching into an Agile approach that might've been doomed from the start...

Saturday, January 13, 2018

My Year in Books (according to Goodreads)

Apparently I'm starting a trend. Last year I didn't intend to have my first post of the year be the book-reading summary. This year, I totally intended it. I'm going to post the things that Goodreads reported as well as my own accounting where I disagree with them.

This marks my second full year of participation in Goodread's reading challenge. My goal this year wasn't as aggressive as last year though. I only aimed to get 50 books read by year's end. Let's see how I did! (As was done last year, I've snipped graphics from Goodreads and pasted them here. Thanks Goodreads!)

Made it!
My goal was 50; I read 55. Yay! However, the page count here is wrong. As it turns out, Goodreads lists the page counts for some book mediums strangely, especially ebooks. The page count I calculated after some manual research was actually 19,684. This is still a large mark down from last year's totals of 65 books and 23,442 pages.

With an average length!
This one is also slightly off. The three largest books I read this year were:
It turns out I hadn't populated the end date for Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so even though it was in my Finished list, and it seemed to count in the reading challenge, it didn't show up as a contender in the longest book competition. Last year's largest book was a paltry 736 pages (Bag of Bones by Stephen King).

For more reference, the three smallest books I read were:
Two books of poetry and one philosophical tome were my three shortest books? What does that say about art and thought? :-| One other quick note: the copy of Tao Te Ching I read was a translation by Ursula Le Guin, and was REALLY well done. If you're at all interested, I highly recommend getting a copy.

For comparison, the shortest actual book I read last year was The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman (72 pages), followed closely by The Road Not Taken and Other Poems by Robert Frost (81 pages). Another Robert Frost book! I suppose I should find a third one to put into the list for this year. ;-)

Given that one of the largest books was missing from the Goodreads calculation, the Average Length was actually 364 pages. For reference, the median book page-count-wise was Walden by Henry David Thoreau, at 352 pages.

That's all I'm going to include from the Goodreads stats. If you're interested in the full page, here's the link to the Goodreads summary. From here on out, it's custom graphs. Buckle up!

Orange and gray graphs!

Good grief, this chart is all over the place this year. There was a month where I didn't finish ANY book at all (April), right in between a 6-month and 7-month set. To be fair, it just so happens that I started some large books in April and finished a couple in May (including Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell).

No outliers this year!
Last year, I read SEVEN Brandon Sanderson books. This year only thirteen books had shared authors, which means that I read books from 45 different authors. That seems like a good thing!

Interestingly, I read just as many books by Amber Benson as Jim Butcher this year (three each). I did that because I knew I was going to meet her at HawaiiCon, and I'm glad I did. Not only did we get to talk about writing a bit, but Amber's a fantastic author that plays with mythology in at least one of her series and also writes collaboratively with other authors, all of which I'm interested in. You should check her out if you have the chance. She's on break from social media (not counting Instagram), but you can have a look at her Goodreads page.

Also in the honorable mention position are Neil Gaiman and Matt Carson. Matt is a friend of mine that is trying to become a traditionally published author. In the meantime, he's going the all-Amazon route. I highly recommend his work, especially his book of short fictions called Strange Reports From Sector M. If you like scifi, you should definitely get a copy. I suggest the printed version, because it was one of the few printed books I read this year. :-)

mmmmmm... pie...
Ah, the return of the book media distribution! How I've missed you, pie chart! Since I don't commute to work anymore, my Audible consumption has gone down as a percentage. That being said, I still listen to books almost as often as I read them. I tend to listen to books while I'm working out in the mornings or driving to pick up the boys. Kindle won the day with 23 of the 55 books, but actually reading as opposed to listening totaled 35 of 55. That's a big piece of pie!

And that was my year in books. I've entered the challenge again this year, and strongly encourage you to do so as well. Goodreads is a wonderful tool that provides a social aspect that I generally underutilize. If you're on Goodreads and we're not pals there, look me up at this link.

This year I'm trying to get to 60 books. So far, I've finished one and am reading three others. Technically, I'm on track, but two of the three I'm currently reading are 700+ and 1000+ pages. Wish me luck! And see you there!!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 8: Christmas Day

In his peripheral vision, Oliver could tell that it was morning. Pale grayish white light leaked in through the small window above the shower. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but knew it was still early.

He rolled over, then sat up slowly. He was slightly sore, his arms, legs, and joints protesting at the motion, but no more so than usual given the recent long flight. He stood up and looked at himself in the mirror. His hair was disheveled and his cheek bore the marks of laying flat against the tile floor, and he definitely needed to shave.

Was that all a dream? he thought to himself. It didn’t feel like a dream. It was so real.

At that moment, he heard his phone chirp from the bedside table. He walked from the bathroom to the bed, sat on it, and grabbed the phone. It was a text message from Dottie. It read:

“Happy Christmas, Ollie! I hope you and your family have a wonderful day. I know you’ve probably got loads of stuff to do today, but if you find yourself with a free moment this evening, I’m planning to have Christmas dinner out, maybe at Simpson’s Tavern.”

He re-read the message, then made a quick reply.

“Happy Christmas to you too, Dottie! Would I be imposing too much if I called you in a hour or so?”

A minute later, he got the reply. “Not at all! If I don’t answer, just call again. This phone is a bit wonky with international calls sometimes… <wink>”

He smiled, then slipped the phone into his pocket and made his way out of the bedroom. The common room was as it had always been, although the bedroom door opposite him was cracked slightly.

He headed downstairs. The twins’ rooms on the second floor were already vacant, and he could hear faint conversation echoing up from the kitchen area. Entering the kitchen, he was greeted with warm wishes of Happy Christmas from his mother and father and sisters. He saw them in a new light this morning, recognizing subtle signs that he hadn’t noticed before last night. Victoria gave him some good-natured ribbing about looking like he fell out of the bed and slept on the floor. He retorted with a quip that said Victoria looked almost, but not quite, as lovely as Daphne in the morning. This elicited an immediate laugh from everyone except Victoria, but she quickly licked her finger and drew it in a a vertical line in the air, as if awarding Oliver a point, and then hugged him tightly.

“I’m very glad you’re here, Ollie. I know I don’t always say it or show it, but I want you to know I’m always glad to see you.”

“I know, Vickie,” he replied, hugging her back. “And I don’t always say it or show it, but I’m always glad to be here.”

Victoria released him, reseating herself at the kitchen table while wiping her eyes dry. Oliver pretended not to notice as he said, “And that goes for the rest of you. I know I’ve been distant physically and emotionally, but I’m working to change that. I want you all to know that I am very happy to be able to spend Christmas here, with all of you.”

“I do have a request, however,” he said, sitting at the end of the table opposite his father. “Several, actually. First, regarding Christmas dinner. Would you all be alright going out instead of eating at home this evening?”

They said they would, especially his mother.

“And would you be very opposed to me inviting Dottie? I think she might be spending Christmas alone, and… well, I don’t think anyone should be alone on Christmas if they don’t want to be.”

They were all pleasantly surprised to hear that he was interested in having her around. Victoria and Daphne spent several minutes recalling fond memories of her from Oliver’s secondary school days, how she had been almost a big sister to them. His mother and father added to the color of the conversation, which ultimately ended in them saying that she should definitely join them if she wanted to.

Oliver continued. “Secondly, Mom and Dad, I know you wanted to have Christmas here because you’re thinking about selling this house. Can I convince you not to sell it? The house has always been in our family, and I would like to keep it that way if we possibly can.”

“Oliver,” his father replied, “I’d like to, but with none of us living in it, it just doesn’t make any sense to keep it.”

“What if… I… were to move into it?”

The stunned silence in the kitchen was finally broken by Daphne. “You mean, you want to move back here? From America?”

“I think I might,” said Oliver.

“But I haven’t had a chance to visit you there yet…” Daphne whimpered.

“Daphne, I formally invite both you and Victoria to visit me in America. My lodging is modest, but there are some great places to stay in New York. Plus,” he continued, winking at them, “you can help me pack. Mom and Dad, I would really like for you to consider joining them.”

“Um, well, that sounds lovely, and, um…” Oliver’s father began, sounding slightly confounded, “if you really want to move back, and back here particularly, then of course we won’t sell it. But Oliver, this seems… well, rather sudden. Are you sure about this? Are you feeling alright, son?”

“I’m feeling better than I have in ages, Dad. I… came to some realizations last night, and one of them is that home is where the heart is. My heart is still here, with you lot,” he replied, sharing a half-smile with Victoria. “And I want to keep that feeling alive in me all the time, not just around Christmas. This place helps with that. There’s something… magical about it.” He looked around the room, but his gaze encompassed the entire house, then came to rest on the family again.

“And finally, before we get into the full festivities of the day, I need to take a short walk. Can we wait an hour or so to start opening presents?”

They gave him questioning looks, with Daphne offering to go with him on his walk. He insisted that it was silly errand and that he would be back quickly, but that he wanted to do it alone. Victoria said it would take her at least that long to get ready for the Christmas photo session, and as much as some things had changed, Oliver knew better than to question Victoria on the subject. Ten minutes later, Oliver was out the door, Timothy’s journal and pen in hand.

He retraced his steps from his adventure, taking him first to the garden. It wasn’t quite like it had been in his visions, as snow had fallen overnight and still clung to the highest branches of the trees there, but it was very well cared for. From the sidewalk, he peeked into the bay window with the seat in it, and saw a wall mostly unadorned, but there was an elderly couple slow dancing in the room. Neither of them had the silvery hair of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and they looked thoroughly happy in each other’s company.

Oliver opened the journal to a blank page beyond the family tree and made a few notes. He then walked on, deciding to skip trying to get up to Simpson’s. They were going to be there later that day, which was soon enough. Instead, he wound through the streets until he arrived at Angel Gate. Walking through and to the right, he entered the lobby of the Silver Oak Care Center. A similarly dressed but different attendant was there, and looked up at his entrance, smiling a tired smile.

“Happy Christmas, sir! How can I help you?”

“I’m… uh, looking for Mr. Footuray. I think he’s a resident on the second floor…?”

The attendant looked confused as he said, “That name doesn’t sound familiar, but let me check. Maybe he’s a new resident that I haven’t met yet…” he trailed off as he tapped on the computer. A moment later, he shook his head. “No, I’m sorry sir, there’s no Footuray here. Perhaps he’s in another residence? There are several in this part of London…”

“Yes, probably so. I’ll check with his family… probably just got the address wrong. Thank you, and Happy Christmas to you,” Oliver said, opening the door to leave, then turning back to the attendant. “Excuse me, but do you have a volunteer program here? I’d be interested in getting involved, if so.”

The attendant’s face lit up. “Oh, absolutely sir! We rely on volunteers for lots of resident interactions. It requires the normal qualification process, but here’s an application.” He came out from behind the desk and handed a form to Oliver. Oliver accepted it gratefully, folding it and tucking it into the journal, making a few more notes on the page he’d started earlier as he left.

He continued walking, making his way back towards the Torrington house, flipping through the pages of the journal. As he did, a loose one fell out, threatening to blow away on a playful breeze. Oliver caught it just before it escaped fully, and noticed that the script on this page was different from the others used in the journal. The entry was actually made out to him.


I must apologize for our abrupt departure. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come released you, it marked my release as well. I no longer carry any mantle of Spirit of Christmas, and am going on to my final rest. I hope you, if not enjoyed, at least learned something during our short adventure together. As I said, I was never very good at actually being the Spirits of Christmas, but I always tried, and sometimes succeeded. My hope is that you will be counted among those successes. Always remember to do your part to keep the Spirits of Christmas alive! Farewell, my friend!

—E. S.”

Oliver smiled, tucking the page back into the journal, and the journal into his coat. He then pulled out his phone and made the call he’d been waiting for what seemed like his entire life to make.

“Dottie? Yeah hi, it’s Oliver… Yes, Oliver Thompson… Ah, yeah of course I knew you were teasing. So was I… uh… listen…” he fumbled the phone as he transferred it to the other ear. “You asked about me having a free moment, and… well… what do you think about joining me and my family for Christmas dinner?… No, no imposition at all. We were already planning on going to Simpson’s… Great! What’s easiest for you? We can meet at the restaurant or you can come by the house and we can ride together, or I can pick you up… although I don’t have a car… Heh, yeah, that would be difficult then. See you at our house at… six or so? Fantastic!… Happy Christmas to you too! Oh, and Dottie…” he paused, gathered his resolve, then continued, “at some point, I’ve got a crazy-sounding story to tell you…”