Monday, January 25, 2021

I am not a dog person

I grew up with a love/hate relationship with dogs. My sister, brother and I grew up with dogs - my earliest memories include an eating and pooping machine named Tammy. That would have been fine had Tammy also been a fun, kid-friendly dog. She was neither of these things. 

Tammy, a poodle-mix mutt, was a 50-pound doorstop whose best day was when someone inadvertently left an outside door ajar. When this happened, Tammy turned from languorous sausage into fleet-footed roadrunner, moving at a speed that was incomprehensible given her size and distinct resemblance to the Hindenburg. The next hour was typically consumed by our entire family scouring the neighborhood for our missing blob. I passingly considered what it meant that we owned a dog whose greatest passion was for getting away from us.

My mother, with what I know were the best intentions, insisted on taking in the dogs that no one else wanted. We adopted Piddle, whose name accurately described her from the day we got her. Piddle was another black dog, this one a little smaller and of entirely indeterminate breed. Piddle ran a bit faster but was otherwise indistinguishable from the other black lump. 

And there was Tigger, some sort of mid-size mutt who had distemper as a puppy and suffered substantial brain damage as a result. Tigger had a significant twitch that made her look like she was doubting each word spoken to her. She tolerated all of us, but for reasons none of us understood, she adored my dad. And my dad, like me, was not a dog person. This made her insistence on jumping up in his lap and sitting up proudly even funnier, especially since she was a good-size dog. 

My mother always used to give the dogs a treat before bed. With Tigger, it was usually a piece of white bread, which she would dutifully carry to her little scrap of carpet to eat. As she got older and brain damage became dementia, she still took the piece of bread, but no longer remembered what to do with it. She'd walk around the kitchen, proudly sporting her slice of bread, and in the morning we'd invariably find it somewhere with a Tigger-mouth-shaped piece missing.

It was against this backdrop that I was forced to consider this suggestion from Sharon: "We should get a dog." I had long since figured out that not all dogs were the amorphous masses I grew up with. We had some friends living with us for a while who had a beagle puppy, and I admit that I liked having him around. But there was a big difference between someone else's dog and my dog.

I should also mention here that I have always seen myself as a cat person. We didn't have cats when I was a kid (except for a few brief stints), but I got a cat as soon as I moved out of the house and have had at least one ever since. Cats are my sort of pet - show them the litterbox once and they know where to go for life, and otherwise all I need to remember is to feed them. My cats have always had their share of love and attention, but they've also been entirely independent, deigning to let me pet and scratch them on their schedule. This has always been fine with me.

Not a dog person.

Twelve years ago, I was on a business trip in Sweden. On my second day there, I had a dream that Sharon called me and said, "I adopted two dogs." I decided to call her before leaving for my first meeting of the day just to make sure it was a dream, and when she picked up the phone, I couldn't hear her at all - all I could hear was yipping. I hadn't been dreaming. I was now a dog owner.

(In fairness to Sharon, we had discussed getting a dog for a long time. I wasn't ready, but Sharon correctly pointed out that, given my dog history, I probably wouldn't ever be ready.)

I'm not going to write a lot here about Inigo and Buttercup, the two black lab shelter dogs that Sharon adopted. I will just say this - I had no idea what dogs were all about until we had these two. It never occurred to me that I could have a relationship with a dog that involved more than food and poop. I am pretty sure they both knew that dogs weren't my preferred pet, and they did everything in their power to wheedle themselves into my reluctant brain. 

By the time they were a year old, I couldn't imagine being without them. In fact, I suggested to Sharon that, since they both loved sleeping on the bed, maybe we should let them sleep with us every now and then. They became a permanent fixture, not an inconsiderable thing given their combined weight of 175 pounds.

I was still not a dog person.

Earlier this year, we decided to get a third dog after a great deal of agonizing. We adopted an adorable 6-year-old Mastiff, a puppy mill dog that had had at least five litters of puppies. The day after we adopted Morgan, Buttercup died. We were heartbroken and once again back to two dogs. We started talking about getting another dog, but really needed to get over Buttercup. We started looking anyway.

We really wanted another big dog - a Lab, Great Dane or something in that giant dog range. We had never considered German Shepherds, but one of the shelters we found had a litter of five Shepherd puppies being fostered. We decided to have a look.

This is where this story takes an odd turn. Inigo and Buttercup were Sharon's dogs. She trained them, spent more time with them than I did (I was traveling for work about 75% of the time) and was clearly the Alpha for them. I had, somewhat jokingly, suggested to Sharon that this dog should be mine. She took this suggestion very seriously. 

We went to visit the foster home, who had a dog run and pens in the back of their house. The foster mom let the puppies out, and three of them came charging over to where I sat on the ground near their pen. Two of them jumped, snapped, barked, bit and scratched in an attempt to get my attention. The third butted her head up against my chest, curled up in my lap and went to sleep. 

I know how this is going to sound, but I am going to tell you what happened next anyway. I heard a voice in my head that said, "I'm Lana." I hadn't thought for an instant about dog names, or even whether this was the dog I wanted. Sharon, who was checking out the other two dogs, heard all the noise and came over to see. 

All I could say was, "This is Lana, and she's my new dog." And then I burst into tears for no reason I could define then or now.


That was September 25. Two days later, Lana was looking and acting sick. After a few discussions on the phone, we took her to the vet and she was diagnosed with parvovirus, a highly contagious virus that has a spectacularly high mortality rate in puppies. There is a vaccine, but Lana had not been old enough to get it yet. We talked to the foster family and learned that every dog in the litter had parvo.

The current strain of this virus has about a 50% mortality rate. It is so serious that the vet went out of her way to remind us that Lana might well not survive the week. They strongly recommended that we bring Lana to them so they could  watch her closely 24/7.

Sharon and I talked about it, and I couldn't even conceive of giving her to someone else to care for. My dog was sick, maybe dying, and there was no fucking way anyone else could care for her better than I could. I found myself contemplating the deals we all consider when tragedy raises its head - "Let her live and I'll...". I looked at this sickly 18 pound animal and thought, "Is it possible to love something as much as I love this furball?" Two days. Two days is all it took for her to worm her way into my heart in a way that made it inconceivable for us to be apart.

And that is when I became a dog person.

This is probably a good time to mention that Lana hasn't spoken to me since that first day. It doesn't matter. She needed me to know her name, and that's all she had to say. Everything else, she has said by sleeping on my feet, curling up in my lap and licking my face. And I know exactly what she's saying.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

10 things I want Trump supporters to know about me

I regularly engage in political discussions, here on Facebook and elsewhere. I’ve noticed a number of common themes in these discussions, so I thought I could save a lot of time and energy by establishing some of my positions in advance.

1. I don’t hate you. You may find this hard to believe, but I can and do separate my political beliefs from my personal relationships. 

2. I don’t hate America. This is one I hear all the time: “All liberals hate America” or other variants, along with variants on “Obama tried to bring down democracy” and “Obama hated America.” I love this country, and I know you do, too. The way I show my love for my country is personal to me, just like yours.

3. I don’t want to ban guns. If we could do it all over again, I’d rather that we view guns the way the UK does (pretty much no one has them), but I know that ship sailed 240 years ago. I am not at all opposed to private gun ownership. You and I might disagree about whether you need a 30-round clip, but I support your right to own guns and ammunition.

4. I accept that Clinton may have done bad stuff. However, I don’t believe that any of the bad stuff she did is relevant to *today’s political situation*. If you want to see her prosecuted for crimes she may have committed, I accept that. Just don’t conflate it with anything that might be going on *today*.

5. I don’t think you’re stupid. This comes up way too often in political discussions. I very much want to know what you’re thinking and why. If I sound dismissive of your opinions, that’s bad, and I truly hope I don’t. But you will never, ever hear me dismiss your opinions because I don’t think you’re smart enough to express them.

6. I will never call you names, and I expect the same from you. I’m not a libtard. I’m not a Dumbocrat. I’m not an “idiot lefty” (something I was just called a few minutes ago). If you call me names, don’t expect me to engage you in any discussion. I won’t pigeonhole or generalize about you; please show me that same respect.

7. In the context of a discussion about Trump, I don’t care what you think about Obama. Everything else I’ve said here probably sounds reasonable and measured, and this doesn’t. I’m really, really big on staying on topic. If you want to discuss Obama, feel free to bring it up in its own context and I’m happy to discuss. But whatever Obama may or may not have done is only relevant if the underlying issue specifically relates to the current discussion (and this also applies to anything Bill Clinton did). It doesn’t excuse any actions by Trump, nor does it diminish such actions.

8. You can support your guy without defending everything he does. I voted for Obama, but there were plenty of things he did that I opposed, some vocally and vehemently. I suspect that, even if you are Trump’s most ardent supporter, you’ve seen him say or do things that you don’t agree with. Your support for him isn’t diminished if you don’t come to his defense when he’s wrong.

9. I am over the election. I was honestly appalled that Trump won, and there was a long period, well after his inauguration, during which I remained incredulous that he was president. But the election is over, he won and I accept that. I am intensely opposed to many of his policies and actions, and I’ll express these as I see them. I felt the same way about many of the things that GWB did, although I felt less passionately about them than I do about Trump. But just to be clear – if you believe that I feel the way I do on any given topic because I’m butthurt over Trump’s win, you’re missing the point.

10. You and I want the same things – we just see a different path to get there. I'll do my best to keep this in mind when we talk, and I'd appreciate if you would do the same.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why barred me, and why they might bar you, too

I have been playing on the World Series of Poker's online poker site,, for five years. I have done well, winning a number of WSOP entries (including three in one year), mostly playing before and during the WSOP.

Until today, that is. Today, barred me because they don't like the way I talked to them. And if you happen to say the wrong thing - you could easily be next.

This all started this morning, when I received this email from J'Cory at
Dear Dan,

To ensure we are meeting all regulations, we continually monitor for suspicious geo-location behavior. Recently there was potentially suspicious location activity on your account in which we detected the use of the following blocked software, Vysor, on your device which is prohibited. We have made the decision to keep your account open on the condition that in the future you do not log-in and/or play on from any devices running these software/program(s).

If it is detected that you are using a device with any of the above moving forward, we reserve the right to take action up to permanently closing your account. Should this happen you will not be permitted to create new accounts with any Caesars Interactive Entertainment, Inc. licensed brands.



The program J'Cory mentioned, Vysor, is software that allows you to mirror your Android phone on your computer. I did, in fact, use this software several years (and several computers) ago; however, I haven't used it in a long time and have never used it on this computer. It's not possible that I used it on my phone, because, as I explain below, incorrectly locates me when I use my phone and claims I'm out of the country.

I also didn't exactly love the attitude. My response:

(06/12/2018 10:00 PM)
Let me be sure I understand - I am one of your longest-standing customers. You somehow believe (wrongly) that I am using some software that you don't like, and you think the best way to deal with this is to threaten me? 
Here are some facts: 
1. You believe that my computer has a program on it called Vysor. I do not have and do not use such a program. 2. Vysor is, in fact, a program that allows a user to control their Android phone from a computer. I do have Vysor installed on my phone. However, it is not
possible that you discovered Vysor on my phone. Why? Because incorrectly identifies my Android phone as not being located in Nevada, and I have never been able to play from it as a result. I have tried about 10 times to log onto from my phone. I no longer bother to try. I get this message: 
"Sorry, due to existing regulation (sic), we cannot allow member (sic) from your country of residence to play for real money with us. You are still able to cash out your funds at any time. For 
assistance please contact customer support." 
Just to be clear - your email indicates that you are going to bar me if I log on again using the Vysor software - since I don't have it installed, I can't do anything differently from what I do now. If that means you're going to bar me for software I don't own, have at it. 
Customer support at has never been good, but this sets a new low. If you *believe* that a customer is running software that violates your Terms of Service, I respectfully suggest 
that you do some research before accusing and threatening your customers. 
Dan Goldman 

 Their response:
(06/12/2018 10:45 PM)
Hey smalltalkdan,

Thanks for contacting us; my name is Cadeem and I'll be helping you today.

Please note that the email wasn't a threat it was just advising you that the software is not allowed and not to use it again. 

I know you said you don't have it installed but just double check again before login so we don't have to close your account. 

We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience in this matter.


So in my email, I made it clear that I had never used the software they claimed I had. Their response was to tell me "[do] not use it again." If you have ever met me, you know how something like this goes over with me. This is especially true because I have relentlessly skewered Caesars and's terrible customer service on this blog - and that is, in fact, the reason I was barred. They're sick of me. I would be, too. But if it were me, I'd say to myself, "OK, why is this happening? This guy is a tool, but does he have a point?" Caesars and think it's a better idea to just make me go away.

My response to that missive:

(06/13/2018 12:15 AM)
So just to be clear - I told you that I am not using this software, but you are advising me "not to use it again." I AM NOT USING THIS SOFTWARE. NOT USING IT. Is there some part of "I'm not using this" that you don't understand? Here is a clip from my list of installed programs. No Vysor. [clip removed]

You can dress up your words any way you like, but where I come from, if you say, "Don't do this again or we'll close your account," that's a threat. It's particularly egregious in this case because YOU'RE WRONG. I am
looking forward to your actually closing my account for this bogus reason; if you do, the 20,000 readers of my blog (, almost all poker players, will be very interested. Just in case this is unclear - yes, this is a threat. 
Dan Goldman 

OK, I stepped over the line there and challenged them to do what they ultimately did. If you're thinking I deserved it, you might have a case. However, these guys continually dish up marginal-at-best customer service and know that 99% of players will just take it. Apparently they deal with the 1% by making them go away.

Their final email:

(06/13/2018 03:54 AM)
Dear Dan,

This is Brandon B. from the Support Department at I am writing to you regarding your account with username "smalltalkdan".

Please be advised, your account has been permanently closed based on a decision by our management.

Your remaining balance of $895.40 will be sent to your registered address via a mailed check (bank draft).


Brandon B.
Player Support Representative

Yup. Tell them they're wrong, and their response is to bar you.

I have appealed this to the few people at I know, but the chances they will relent are roughly zero. I am a squeaky wheel. Caesars and the WSOP like people who do what they're told. That is as far from me as you can get.

But it's not over. It's far from over. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 4)

[Note: Reminder that we're trying to raise $5,000 for Team Rubicon's continuing good works, and we're a few thousand short. Please click here to donate, and remember that TR is a 501(c)(3) charity that qualifies for most companies' matching contribution programs.]

It's taken me a while to write this next piece. It's partially laziness, but it's mostly because this day, our second in the field, was emotionally wrenching for me and it's been difficult to revisit it. My apologies for taking so long.

At the end of my last post, we had just finished our first day in the field. I haven't talked much about the facilities, other than to mention sleeping dormitory-style, and this deserves a mention. We were housed in the Calvary Baptist Church, which had become the de facto headquarters for hurricane relief in Beaumont, TX. The church pretty much turned the entire facility, which encompassed a number of buildings on about three acres, over to relief agencies, particularly Team Rubicon. But they didn't just hand us the property - they were right there with us, working side-by-side. I mentioned cooking, shower and laundry facilities that various other Baptist ministries had contributed - the staff of this church, along with many others, also operated those facilities. 

For example, at the end of each day, we were all entirely soaked through. Both Sharon and I had packed very judiciously, since we had to be able to travel with everything we owned in our backpacks. This means that we didn't bring a week's worth of underwear and socks. Fortunately, one of the church teams ran a laundry facility in the parking lot. At the end of each exhausting day, I went to the shower facility, peeled off layers of drenched clothing and put them in a bag. After showering, I dropped them off at the laundry, which was conveniently located right next to the showers. By the next afternoon, they were returned, cleaned and folded. There were four relief workers doing laundry for about 120 people every day, and they did it efficiently and with smiles on their faces. And remember that they were washing clothes that had pretty much every awful thing you can imagine on them, from mold to Ebola. OK, maybe not Ebola, but you get the idea.

At the end of our first day in the field, we previewed the house we would work on the following day. The homeowners had set up some folding tables just outside their garage, where they were sorting through the very small amount of their belongings that were salvageable. The wife, who I'll call Helen, was a delightful, funny woman of about 75 years who insisted on hugging each of us when we arrived. I should note here that each of us had been mucking out a different house, in 90° heat and 90% humidity, for the previous 8 hours. I found it hard enough simply being in my own body, smelling the way I did, but Helen didn't care a whit. We had done nothing yet, but she couldn't stop telling us how grateful she was that (1) she and her husband David were still alive and (2) we were there to help. 

We spent only about two hours at her house that day. The house was a relatively small one-story with a recently-renovated kitchen and a massively-equipped workshop in the garage. This neighborhood was one of the unfortunate ones that was the victim of intentional flooding - the Army Corp of Engineers determined that they needed to release water from nearby Steinhagen Lake to prevent catastrophic damage to the dams. We quickly realized that this house had been almost completely submerged as a result. We spent most of our time organizing and planning a strategy for removing the remaining furniture and stripping the rest of the interior. We assured Helen and David that we would return bright and early the following morning, and headed back to our FOB (forward operating base).

Closing out each day was more than just a matter of returning a truck. We made a pretty massive mess of everything we worked with - trucks, equipment and people - and in military fashion, the day wasn't over until everything was in pristene condition for the next day. When we returned to the FOB, we removed all of our considerable equipment from the truck and power-washed both the equipment and the truck. We then power-washed and disinfected everyone's boots, which were left outside to dry, and headed for the aforementioned showers.

I mentioned in Part 3 that each day ended with a debriefing and campfire. This took place after dinner, which was typically a high-carbohydrate, mass-produced meal. There were a handful of fast-food places nearby that had reopened (at this point, 11 days after the waters receded, only about 25% of businesses were open), but no one had the energy to do much of anything but drag ourselves to dinner and the debrief.

The daily debriefing consisted mostly of our command updating us on our progess thus far - how many homes we had worked on, how many our assessment teams had evaluated and what was expected for the following day. Staff provided a small amount of beer, rationing everyone to two beers maximum. At the end of the debrief, our unit commander said, "Tell me a story." After a long pause, someone raised a hand, which opened the floodgates. For the next 90 minutes, many of my co-volunteers told stories of destruction and hope. As exhausted as I was, I still wanted to hear every single one. When we ran out of stories, Sharon and I dragged ourselves up to our cots. I looked at my phone and realized that it was 9.15pm. I'm pretty sure the last time I went to sleep at 9.15pm was never; Sharon agreed.

The next morning came far too quickly for all of us. We were all up by 6.15am - since about 50 of us were sharing 3 sinks, we needed plenty of time so we could get on the road by 7.30am. I had awakened at around 3 convinced that I would have to take the day off - my shoulder, which has been a lifetime problem, was in very bad shape as a result of my holding a 10 lb. crowbar over my head for 8 hours. But by 6 I was OK, so I took some ibuprofen and decided I could at least make it until lunch.

After some surprisingly good sausage and biscuits and a half-gallon of coffee, I was ready to get moving. Team Charlie piled into our truck and drove the 10 minutes to Helen and David's house, who were waiting for us along with their daughter. "What do y'all feel like for lunch today?" she asked. I told her that we had brought lunch along, and she asked what we had. "Mostly military MREs, and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," I responded. She made a little motion with her hand, as though she were gently brushing the MREs off her work table. "We'd like to buy you lunch. What do you want?" There was some discussion, but no one wanted to volunteer an idea. Helen knew I used to live in Houston, and asked me what my favorite fast food was when I lived there. Before I could stop the words from escaping, "Church's fried chicken!" came out. Helen nodded and said that was also her favorite, especially with the squeeze of jalapeno juice (if you've had Church's, you know what I mean).

The first two hours consisted of deciding exactly how much of the sheetrock we needed to remove. After some debate, we decided that cutting the sheetrock didn't make much sense - the room that fared the best had water damage up to 7 feet. We decided to strip the whole house, except for the ceilings, down to the studs.

One of the other volunteers and I decided to take on the kitchen. Everything needed to go, including built-in cabinets and all of the appliances. Most of it was awful but pretty straightforward until we got to the range. We muscled it out away from the wall, no simple feat as it was shockingly heavy. But we got it positioned to move, and I got a hand cart from the truck. We slid it into place. I was pretty sure I could handle the weight, but one of the other volunteers came over to help. My work partner gave us a little boost and we tilted the range back onto the hand cart.

This was when we learned why the range was so heavy. It was an almost-new Kenmore range/oven combination, and apparently one of its features is its airtight seal. Water had somehow gotten into the oven opening and was unable to escape. In the next few seconds, my helper and I were drenched from the chest down with two-week-old dirty flood water. The smell was indescribable - I was sure something had died in that oven. Unfortunately, there was really nothing we could do at that point other than return to base for a change of clothes, which we opted not to do. We already smelled pretty bad; how much worse would another hew hours be?

We moved along to the cabinets, which were an experience in themselves for a different reason. Helen had several drawers in the kitchen that contained photos, documents and bundles of letters. These were almost all beyond salvage, but we took our time and went through everything to see if there were anything worth keeping. We did find a few things, and both Helen and David treated each like Christmas gifts. I found it hard to understand how they could keep a positive outlook when they had lost almost everything. Helen explained it very simply: "We already thought everything was gone. Anything you find is a gift."

Next: It finally all gets to me.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 3)

[Note: Reminder that we're trying to raise $5,000 for Team Rubicon's continuing good works. Click here to donate, and remember that TR is a 501(c)(3) charity that qualifies for most companies' matching contribution programs.]

Our first day in the field was Sunday, September 10. I had a pretty terrible night's sleep. I'm spoiled - I am accustomed to sleeping in a king-size, soft bed with Sharon, a pillow and some dogs. I woke about every hour or so, owing to nothing in particular except the fact that I was sleeping on an army cot in a sleeping bag in a huge room with 25 other people, most of whom snored. The snoring itself didn't bother me all that much - I usually wear earphones - but when you've already been awakened and are pretty sure there's no more sleep in store for you, snoring is just one more thing.

We had been told in our briefing the previous night that breakfast was served beginning at 6.00am, and that we had a mandatory morning briefing at 7.30am. I had unnecessarily set the alarm on my phone for 6.00am. When it went off, I was already awake and considered briefly letting Sharon sleep for a bit longer, but then realized that she was awake and reading. We both did an awkward in-sleeping-bag shuffle to put underwear and pants on. This is funny to look back on now, as five days' hence we pretty much just jumped out of bed with no regard for who was looking (which was no one). By 6.30am, we had our gear on and were, more or less, ready to greet day 1.

We left the building that served as our dormitory and walked to the hastily-constructed chow hall, which serves as a basketball court in brighter days. We hadn't really noticed the night before, but there were no less than 20 trailers spotted around the parking lot. The vast majority were emblazoned with other church organizations' logos (the Chicago Baptist Ministry, the Baptist Ministry of Alabama and the Southern Baptist Convention are three I recall). These were dedicated disaster relief trailers of one sort or another. Over the next week, I learned that two of these were shower facilities (one had eiight showers, one had four), several housed cooking facilities for large groups and one contained washers and dryers. At least five others held field equipment, water and food.

We got styrofoam box trays (so we could take food with us if needed) and lined up. The first day's breakfast was Southern standard - biscuits, gravy, sausage and cheesy grits. This was an ongoing theme - breakfasts were heavily carb-laden. We found a few people we had met the night before, wolfed down food, orange juice and coffee with them and made our way back over to the arena where the prior night's briefing had taken place. The morning briefing was much more structured than the prior night's - each key department (planning, logistics, safety, equipment) reported on their status and each had their own first-timer lecture (more than half of us were first-time TR volunteers). They stressed that we were heading for an eye-opening experience, and that safety was paramount. 

We divided into six strike teams of six people each. The strike teams are the groups that actually do the physical labor in the field - the rest of the team is there to support the strike teams. Sharon was assigned to Strike Team Delta; I was on Team Charlie. We found our assigned Ford F-250, which was already fully loaded with our gear for the day - tools of various kinds, safety gear, wheelbarrows and hand carts. We drove around to the food supply truck, where we picked up lunch for the group - this day, lunch was an assortment of sandwiches plus a mind-boggling array of chips, energy bars, nuts, fruit, gum, cookies and, incomprehensibly, chocolate bars (remember we're in east Texas in early September - daytime temperatures are high 80s to mid 90s). We also loaded 120 water bottles and 40 bottles of Gatorade. I incorrectly believed that this was about twice what we needed - we ran out before day's end.

The teams piled into the trucks and took off for our first house. For the first four miles or so, things really didn't look all that bad. There was a lot of debris on the road, but it wasn't until we got off the main highways that we began to get some sense of just how tragic the situation was. Here's an example of a very typical house in Bevil Oaks, a little town abutting Beaumont on the east. [Note: we were told on several occasions each day that we weren't 'disaster tourists,' and were cautioned against taking photos and putting them on social media, making a terrible problem even worse. This is one of only a small number I took, and in each case I got permission from the owners after agreeing to remove anything that might identify them.]
One of hundreds of piles we saw in front of almost all houses.
Most of this pile is in a drainage culvert that you can't see in this picture, so it actually represents a pile about eight feet high. Nothing that you see here is salvageable. Just to be clear - in this neighborhood, every single house had a pile at least this big in front of it. Well, that's not entirely true - some of the residents hadn't returned yet, so relief crews hadn't processed them yet. 

We arrived at our first house just before 8.00am. The house was in what used to be a lovely neighborhood, with almost every home sitting on a half-acre or more of dense woods. From the outside, if you ignored the mountain of furniture, appliances and personal goods, it looked pretty much like a house. It wasn't until we got inside that we had our first look at the real disaster Harvey had wreaked.

The house was a two-story, somewhat unusual for east Texas, with living areas and bedrooms downstairs and the kitchen, dining room and master upstairs. The homeowners, a Beaumont police officer, his wife and two children, had taken much of the moveable stuff out to the street already. This included wall-to-wall carpet that they had cut into small pieces because it was all still drenched, moldy and too heavy to carry in larger pieces. 

I should note here that the worst of the hurricane had passed nine days earlier, but the water was so high in many areas that residents couldn't return for as long as two weeks. This was one of those homes - it had taken on six feet of water and then stewed in 90° heat and 100% humidity for seven days. The stench was hard to describe, and I won't try. We all knew there was bad stuff in the air.

Our strike team leader collected us outside and gave us a rundown of what he believed we could accomplish. Since the homeowners had already do a lot of the work, most of our job was to get the house to the point where, once everything dried out, construction could start. Since this place had been under so much water, the assessment team (who precedes us at every house - more on this later) determined that we needed to strip the ground floor down to the studs up to a height of 6.5 feet. We broke into two-person teams, and I got my first lesson in demolition - the gentle art of removing sopping wet drywall in as few pieces as possible.

I say this last somewhat facetiously, but there is in fact an art to this process. One of our team leads came through the house with a Sawzall (if you don't know what this is but like destroying things, I suggest you buy one right now) and cut the sheetrock at 6.5'. This allowed us to come through with prybars and gently pull the sheetrock away from the wall. In many cases, the sheetrock was still so drenched that it was impossible to remove it in pieces bigger than about a foot square. But we did find at least a few spots where, with the proper soft touch, we were able to remove drywall segments almost intact. It became a sort of game, albeit one that was highly frustrating most of the time.

The foundation of the house, like most in Texas, is a slab of concrete. Drywall is really just gypsum plaster between sheets of paper. In very little time, every room we were in developed a dangerously slippery coating of wet plaster, requiring us to stop and scrape the floors every few minutes to prevent falls. We began to realize that the way we were organized was actually standing in the way of getting the job done, so we switched to 3-person teams. This allowed us to assign one person to scrape up the wet plaster while the other two took down the drywall. We each found at the end of the day that we were about 1" taller, owing entirely to the collected, hardened plaster on our work boots.

Since the damage in this house was limited to less than half of the living space (because of the second story and the garage), things moved along pretty quickly. We had found black mold in several of the walls, so everyone on the team wore masks - this in addition to work pants, hardhats, rubber gloves and work gloves. The result was that we were all literally soaked through with perspiration, in addition to the various other liquids we slogged through or had splashed on us. We stopped every 30 minutes or so to chug water or Gatorade. 

We began to see something that took us by surprise. On a regular basis, someone would drive by - sometimes the Red Cross, sometimes church volunteers, sometimes just neighbors - and ask if we were hungry. Inevitably, someone said yes, and we were treated to fried chicken, cold cut sandwiches, sometimes just fruit or cookies. The last time this happened on this first day, it was a neighbor who had gone to a relief center set up by his church and had taken too many sandwiches. He dropped off the five he knew he couldn't eat.

I thought this first house was pretty grim. The mother had collected Christmas ornaments all her life, and about 90% of them were ruined. Not gone, mind you - that would have been easier. They were there, and in some cases intact, but were covered in mold and other unmentionable stuff. I found a box in a closet crawlspace, and when I opened it I found about fifty of those old yellow Kodak photograph folders. There were about a thousand photos in the box. I found one of the kids (they were teenagers) and suggested that he separate as many as he could before they dried together. By the time we were ready to leave, he had rescued a few dozen; my guess is that about 10% of them could be saved.

By about 3.00pm, we had done all we could. We pulled our equipment outside and back to the truck, loaded up and each guzzled another water before heading out. The homeowners came out to thank us. Our team leader mentioned that their house was unusually well-constructed (more on this later, also - we got to see a lot of the shortcuts that unscrupulous builders take), and that this meant that rebuilding was entirely reasonable. They were surprised - they had been under the impression that they would need to get lucky not to have to tear it down. 

We decided to do a quick preview of our next house - we knew we couldn't get anything substantial done in the two hours we had left. What I said before about this first house being grim was wrong. The first house had minor damage compared to the next one, which had been almost completely submerged. We also met the homeowners, two of the most delightful and unique people I've ever met. Much more on them in the next entry.

We dragged out a few of the larger items and then needed to pack up to get back in time for dinner and our evening briefing. Once we returned, we power-washed every piece of equipment, inventoried it, washed out the truck, scraped plaster off our boots, were sprayed with disinfectant and were then off to the showers. I can honestly say that I have never had a more satisfying shower, despite it being five minutes' duration and mostly cold. 

The rest of the evening consisted of an unmemorable but welcome dinner, followed by an evening debriefing around a small campfire. Once business was done, the Beer Flag was raised, meaning that we could each partake of our allotment of two beers. There's more to tell on this topic, but I am nearly as exhausted telling this story as I was working this day, so it will wait until the next entry.

Next up: The worst of times, and the best of people.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 2)

[Note 1: This post will make a lot more sense if you read Part 1 first.]
[Note 2: Team Rubicon could really use your help to keep doing good works. Please consider donating to our Team Rubicon fundraising page.]

It's 4.15am on Saturday, September 9. If you've ever met either Sharon or me, you know that 4.15am is a time for going to sleep, not one for waking up. The absurd hour is made considerably worse by our having had a few too many drinks with our closest friends the night before.

My phone alarm pipes up with a gentle yet profoundly annoying four bars of jazz music. Sharon hates this ringtone, and frankly I don't care much for it either, so it makes for an effective awakening. I snooze it for five minutes and prod Sharon gently. She mumbles something that sounded like "luck cough." I may have heard this incorrectly.

We're at the Crowne Plaza at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). While absolutely nothing, either in the hotel or nearby, is open at this unseemly hour, our room comes equipped with a coffee machine of sorts and Pike Place blend. I drag my entirely unprepared 62-year-old self out of bed, put coffee on, perform my morning ablutions and start to get organized. Fortunately, we had done most of the organizing yesterday, so this consists mostly of making sure I haven't dropped anything. 

The smell of coffee rouses Sharon slightly. "Dime zit" probably means "What time is it?" to which I respond, "It's twenty after four." This was followed by more incomprehensible likely obscenities, which I opt not to attempt to translate. Sharon stumbles to the bathroom. I turn on the lights, since even the sun has the good sense not to make an appearance yet.

After our excursions to REI, et al, on Thursday, Sharon and I washed all of our new gear and packed our full camping packs and day packs. We were, in fact, ready to go on Friday afternoon, which is more than I can say for us in our current state. We are supposed to meet up with other Team Rubicon members at 5.00am at the Team Rubicon headquarters, which is less than a block from the hotel (and also less than a block from the building in which I worked from 1988-1992, but that's another story). 

Once we've each had a cup of coffee, we're more or less functional. We strap on our camping packs, which turn out to be considerably more unwieldy than expected, especially for me. After a few minutes of strapping and restrapping some of the several thousand straps, catches, ropes and fasteners on this highly complex piece of equipment, Sharon points out that my pack has a waist strap. This makes all the difference, and I go from a 105° angle to nearly perpendicular with the ground. We both totter a bit on the way to the elevator, but by the time we reach the lobby we're relatively stable.

The Team Rubicon office is as close as advertised, although it isn't terribly obvious where it is. We stand on Century Boulevard, in the dark, looking a little confused at not seeing a sign that said 6171, when some people working on a nearby construction site ask if we needed help. They tell us that the TR offices are right where we are standing, more or less, and point us to a side entrance. A few people with similar packs are just emerging, and they point us around the corner to the spot where we are to be picked up. A few minutes later, a shuttle bus arrives. We stow our gear and hop aboard. 

The bus takes us to the American Airlines terminal at LAX, which is unsurprisingly abandoned at this early hour. American has already ticketed all of us for the charter, and their staff people wander through our group, asking for identification and providing us with tickets. They gather us together, show us where to check our luggage (with a counter dedicated to us, a nice touch even though there are exactly zero other travelers) and pack us off to security. We pass through without incident, and are delighted to discover that Starbucks is open. 300mg of caffeine later, we are as ready as we're going to be.
Just in case you are unclear on Sharon's feelings about our 4.15am wakeup call.
The next few hours are uneventful. As it turns out, our flight isn't scheduled to depart until 9.00am; the 5.00am meet time is fairly typical military planning. We drink coffee, find a place that is open for breakfast, meet a few people and even doze off for a few minutes. We weren't sure exactly what was going to be happening when we arrived, so we wore our work gear, plus our brand-new Team Rubicon shirts.
They will never look like this again.
We depart promptly at 9.00am. Once we reach altitude, the captain comes on, but doesn't deliver the typical "We know you have choices, thanks for flying American" blah blah. Instead, he thanks us profusely for taking time out of our schedules to help with the disaster in Houston. He then tells us that his wife is an elementary school teacher who has told her class about Team Rubicon's mission, and that her husband is flying the first-ever Team Rubicon charter. The class of 6- and 7-year-olds decided to make cards to send along with the pilot.

I've gotten something in my eye that I'm having some trouble dealing with. I look around and realize it's not just me. Even the normally stoic Sharon chokes up a little. One after another, these little gems circulate, each one different and each one very personal.

The next few hours pass uneventfully. At one point, our Incident Commander (the big boss), Mike, reads off names of who is going where once we land. We learn that Sharon has been assigned to Friendswood, a city about 30 miles south of Houston, and I have been assigned to Beaumont, a city about 90 miles east (near the Louisiana border). We mention this to Mike, who doesn't ask what our preference is - he just says, "Handled."

We both nod off, and at around 2.30pm Central Daylight Time we land in Houston. After some taxiing delays and a few publicity shots (there was a local news crew and a 60 Minutes crew awaiting us), we are loaded on a bus and taken to a hangar that has been donated by Southwest Airlines. 

Team Rubicon's first charter
We are surprised and delighted to find a crew of kids from a local church there to greet us with cheers and signs. We unload our gear and file into the hangar, and learn to our delight that this group of kids (with some help, presumably) have packed a few hundred sack lunches of chicken and burgers. We each grab one.
The welcoming committee.
We're asked to check in at the desk for the area to which we've been assigned. Sharon goes to the Friendswood desk, I head for the Beaumont desk. We quickly learn that, just as Mike said, our issue had been handled - we were both assigned to Beaumont.

The next few hours are all organizational stuff. We have to sign waivers, get security badges and organize the gear they are providing for us (hardhats, gloves, caps). It's all organized with unsurprisingly military precision - after all, this group is about 75% current or ex-military. Finally, around 6.00pm, we split into groups of six and head for our work vehicles (donated by several rental car companies). We meet a few members of our team and start out on the 2.5 hour drive to Beaumont.

We arrive at our home for the next eight days, the Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont. I will be saying a lot more about this church, their people and their parent organization in future posts, but for now, all you need to know is that they turned their entire church property (about five buildings on three acres) over to us and then provided extraordinary help to us throughout. We are directed to one of a half-dozen large dormitory-style rooms (there are also some classrooms that were converted into smaller living spaces). 
Our double accommodations, complete with nightstand.
Once we drop off our gear, we are all herded to a small arena that has been set up outside as our meeting space/launch point. Mike (Incident Commander) and the rest of the Team Rubicon crew gives us a short briefing on what we should expect beginning at 6.00am the next day (reminder: that's 4.00am Sharon time). They strongly suggest we go to bed. It's 9.45pm, 7.45pm body time, and we've slept several times already. We stay up and meet a lot of our new team members, including an absolutely delightful group of Israeli volunteers from an amazing organization called IsraAid (more about them tomorrow).

By 11.30, we know the wise choice is to go to sleep. We, so used to real beds on real mattresses, attempt to do so.

Tomorrow: Our wildest imagination proves inadequate. 
(yes, I know I said this yesterday. I forgot how much more there was to say.)

Monday, September 25, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 1)

[Note: many people have called, emailed and texted asking how to donate to the amazing organization with which we volunteered - Team Rubicon. We have set up a fundraising page, and would truly appreciate any and all donations of any amount. We've set a goal of $5,000.]

It's been 12 years since the US was hit with a truly disastrous hurricane. As Sharon and I watched the reports of Hurricane Harvey approaching, we were as concerned as everyone, and it was made more personal because we've both lived in Texas (1980-86 in Houston for me, 1996-98 in Dallas for Sharon). By August 29, the extent of the catastrophe in East Texas was apparent and sobering. By August 30, along with the rest of the country, we realized that this was a hundred-year - perhaps thousand-year - storm.

Sharon and I have been the beneficiaries of extraordinary good fortune over the years, and we know it. As we realized the extent of the tragedy in and around Houston, we also realized that it came at a time when, for the first time in years, we both had a big opening in our calendars. We had the briefest of conversations that went like this:

Dan: We should be doing something for Hurricane Harvey relief. I want to give [$amount] to JJ Watt's fundraiser.

Sharon: OK. What else can we do?

Dan: I have nothing on my calendar for the next two weeks. 

Sharon: Me either. We should go to Houston.

Decision made, we then needed to figure out just what "going to Houston" meant. Among the many Harvey posts on Facebook, I saw a friend and former business colleague, Sue Schneider, mention that she was heading to Texas to join the relief effort. We had this conversation on Facebook on August 31:

Dan:  You are heading to Houston, I assume? I may be able to take some time next week. Thoughts on how to volunteer? Red Cross site still down [their site was down periodically throughout the first week of the aftermath].

Sue: Flying in to Dallas tonite. You really can't get to Houston at the moment but they're doing a megashelter in Dallas and some in other communities since people have emigrated. I'll know more once I get there.
Dan: Please do.

Sue: you might want to consider Team Rubicon which goes to help in the neighborhoods. I can hook you up with a friend (who's an affiliate in our biz) and she can fill you in. Let me know.

As promised, Sue connected me with Christine, who recommended Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian relief charity, and Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization composed mostly of military/ex-military, first responders and law enforcement. We had already read a little about Team Rubicon, and decided to volunteer. We both assumed that volunteering meant us telling them we were available, and them telling us when and how to go to Houston. Well, not exactly. As it turns out, Team Rubicon is a very different sort of volunteer organization. The first thing we learned when we applied: they really aren't looking for people to dish out food at the local shelter. On the Volunteer page of the TR web site, they say this:
We are looking for the types of individuals below…
Military Veterans: Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard, Retired, Medically Retired 

Kickass Civilians: First Responders, Medical Professionals, Emergency Managers, Others with Applicable Skills

Sharon had worked in the ER at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. I figured that something in my past had to be considered an "applicable skill." And we think we're pretty kickass. We applied. The questionnaire that followed asked for a lot more information than either of us expected, but we dutifully completed it. That's when we learned that, to be part of Team Rubicon, we needed (a) to take safety courses and pass TR exams, (b) get FEMA certifications that required taking a series of online courses and (c) get background checks. Serious ones. 

On September 1, we both submitted the necessary documentation for the background check and started taking the online courses. The courses were primarily to familiarize non-military people to the command structure used in FEMA rescue and relief operations, and included surprisingly difficult, detailed exams. We took the courses and all of the exams and submitted them on September 3.

Late on September 5, we both received notice that we had passed both the online courses and the background checks. Within an hour, we received deployment notices: we would be deployed to Houston within five days, and could have as little as five hours' notice. We also received equipment lists, and after sorting through stuff, we learned that we had roughly 2% of the gear they suggested.  
The morning of September 6 we headed into San Diego, planning stops at REI, Big 5, Sears and a few other places. Seven hours and about $1,000 later, we came home with backpacks, day packs, sleeping bags, steel-toe work boots, gloves, first aid kits and a vast array of stuff we couldn't imagine actually using. We cut the tags off of everything, made sure it all fit in the backpacks and sat tight waiting for travel details.
The wait was short. The morning of Thursday, September 7, we received notice that American Airlines had donated a charter flight from LAX, and that we were to report to the Team Rubicon HQ offices near LAX at 5.00am (ick) on Saturday, September 9.
Total elapsed time from volunteering to taking off: 9 days.

Tomorrow: The calm before the storm after the storm.