Best. Neighbor. Ever.

Posted by: elraymundo at 4:07 pm on Sunday, September 20, 2009
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Lotus Blossom, Friends, Mystery Fawn, Ah, Memories

When Debra and I bought our first house, the one on Sugar Meadow Drive, the home inspector handed us a one-inch binder called “Your House, Your Home.” “Your House, Your Home” is a 300 page volume outlining the care and feeding of a house. It covers everything from the structure to the roof to the plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems. It breaks out lists of seasonal chores, building codes and maintenance hints and explains arcane topics like asbestos and radon. Flipping casually through the binder, there are diagrams illustrating the perils of truss uplift, wood rot, and combustion.

“Read this,” the home inspector told us. “Do what it says and you’re home will last a very long time.”

As a first-time homeowner and as someone who was never construction-inclined, he might as well have been telling me to read a book on Kung-Fu Mastery written in Mandarin. I know The Debra felt the same way.

Needless to say, when we moved into the house we were thrilled…and terrified. Every seam in the drywall, every nail-pop, every creak in the wall was a potential fatal flaw that could bring the house crumbling down around our ears. The Debra went through her Chamber of the Horribles, which is her dark path from uncertainty to acceptance. She would lie awake in bed and scan the walls and ceiling. “What if that crack up there is the roof about to cave in?” she would say. “I’m sure it’s just the house settling,” I would reply. We had ferocious winds in our neighborhood that would blast down the street sounding like freight trains in the night. “Will our house blow over?” she would ask and I would tell her no, that we might lose some shingles off the roof but that the house would stand.

But I’ll confess that when the heat pump died and the basement utility room flooded and when the lawn mower kicked the bucket and the monster trellis I built in the backyard needed a little help, when the R-values of the wall insulation came up for debate and when it was time to enter the neighborhood Lawn Olympics and fertilizers and the biological characteristics of grass and weeds were suddenly important (monocots versus dicots and the impact of fertilizer run-off on the algae bloom in the Chesapeake Bay) - when all that came up, I admit I was at a loss.

Fortunately I had at my disposal an incredible resource of immeasurable quality: Chris O’Neill, my next door neighbor.




And Chris shares what he knows. Without hesitation. Without compensation. He worked and thought and puzzled and noodled on my behalf so many times I can’t even begin to count. And he did it when he didn’t even know me, when I was just the clueless long-haired dude who moved in next door.

“Chris, my lawn mower won’t start. Any ideas?” Ten minutes later the lawn mower was in pieces and Chris had jury-rigged a spring to stretch from the thing to the whats-it and he’s pulled the starter cord and I’m back in the lawn-chopping business.

“Chris, I can’t figure out why my water heater is flooding my utility room.” And minutes later we were in the basement and I was getting a master class on water heaters and drainage and the downward sloping groove the original owner cut into the basement slab into which he had laid a runoff pipe designed to carry water to the sump pump and how heat and moisture can grow crud which blocks the pipe and causes water to back up and flood the utility room. “Bleach, Michael! Bleach will do the trick!” And we got a funnel and poured a half-gallon of bleach into the pipe and the utility room never flooded again.

I can go on and on. The trellis, the heat pump, adventitious roots, tree-houses, square foot gardens, the diabolical root systems of dandelions, the stealth qualities of gold-colored cars, the glory of re-wiring kitchen soffits, core-aerating the lawns, planning the tunnel we were going to dig from my basement to his…and of course the holiday extravaganzas: leaping from a coffin in a garage filled with dry ice smoke, bungee jumping off the second floor landing to deliver candy to the trick or treaters while bouncing from a cord fastened to an eye-hook in the ceiling of the two-floor foyer, the potato cannon on the Fourth of July, Rocket Man and the weekly unofficial holidays in the backyard where we all drank beer and wine or some other concoction while summer breezes lifted the humidity. Chris was at the root of all of those things.

A couple of years ago - on March 27th 2007, to be precise - a small ceramic deer appeared in our yard. We had no idea who he was or where he came from. He just appeared. This was him:

Mystery Fawn

At the time, I wrote,

La Raymunda called me at the Place of Toil and Labor just after our weekly project status meeting broke up at 10:00.

“Do you have any idea why…”

(and right here I’m already thinking, “Uh oh…what did I do?”)

“…there is a chipped ceramic deer in our front yard?”

(Whew. She didn’t see the hookers and the crack pipes I hid in the closet. Home free!)

We have a guest living among our daffodils - a ceramic deer named Mystery Fawn. (You can see a photo of Mystery Fawn here.) I opened the garage door yesterday to go to work and as I walked around the back of La Raymunda’s car I spotted a deer sitting in the flower bed. I stopped, looked again and, realizing Mystery Fawn was ceramic, stood a while longer trying to figure out where, exactly, Mystery Fawn came from.

There is a house down the street that has been for sale for nine months or so. They have weird red bricks piled up around their trees and flower beds and fake deer standing in the backyard. No one will buy the house, even though the asking price has come down about $75,000. Apparently weird red bricks and fake deer in the backyard are the kiss of death in real estate.

But I digress.

So the only thing I could think of was that some teenage kid stole Mystery Fawn and deposited him amongst our daffodils. Why us in all of suburbia? Well, why not? “Totally random,” I told La Raymunda. She, with her extensive experience with vandalism, believed that vandals actually thought things through before they ran around smashing mailboxes and pumpkins and riding their bikes across other peoples’ lawns.

La Raymunda guesses our next door neighbor, Chris, dropped Mystery Fawn off for an unannounced visit. We had sushi with Chris and Cindy a couple of nights ago and we talked about the fake deer in the backyard down the street - and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Chris digging out some old garden-fawn from out of his basement and plopping it down next to our driveway in the middle of the night. This is the same man who dressed as a vampire and then harnessed himself to the ceiling of his two-story foyer with bungee cords so he could swoop down on trick-or-treaters on Halloween. A ceramic deer prank is kid’s play for Chris.

I’m coming around on the Chris O’Neill’s Wild Kingdom story myself. Chris is a perfectionist and Mystery Fawn wasn’t just cast ashore on our lawn. It’s obvious that Mystery Fawn was arranged with care, so as not to trample any flowers, aligned nicely with the sidewalk in a narrowing pinch of the flower bed with soft, chipped little eyes gazing longingly toward the northwest.

Mystery Fawn traveled back and forth between our house and Chris and Cindi’s, each time dressed up in something different.

Mystery Fawn Mystery Fawn

Mystery Fawn became Leprefawn…

Mystery Fawn

and Bridal Fawn…

Mystery Fawn

and Rastafawnian…

Mystery Fawn

and Kommoniwannafawnya.

Mystery Fawn

It was a friendly game of one upmanship, with each iteration of Mystery Fawn being a little more outrageous than the last. And then summer came and everyone got busy and Mystery Fawn nestled quietly in Chris’ garage and went to sleep.

Until this week.

Cindi was in Calitastrophe visiting us when the job situation blew up in March. She got the full story of The Plagues of the Calipocalypse. She heard about the wildfires that nearly burned down our house, the mudslides that threatened our property, the vicious Santa Ana winds that blew pounds of ash and soot and leaves and charred debris into our pool every day, the lightning strike that knocked out the data center I worked at, the endless power crises that crippled that same data center for months and ultimately led to its demise, the food poisoning and the IRS bill and then the grand finale: losing my job. Lucky Cindi, she was there to hear all of that. And thank God she was or we would have lost it. We needed a friend to lean on and here we had an O’Neill! And when we decided that enough was enough, that we were fleeing what we called The Anaheimville Horror, when I had to fly from Califiasco to Virginia on a Monday to interview on a Tuesday and then fly back on a Wednesday, Chris and Cindi opened their home, took me to dinner, loaned me their car and massaged my weary feet until I fell asleep.

Ok, they didn’t touch my feet or massage anything else. But they might as well have for all the love and friendship they showed. Because that’s the kind of friends they are. And when The Debra and I returned to Virginia for good, schlepping our worldly possessions across the country for the second time in a year, they housed us and fed us and made us drinkies and then, once all the dust had settled and we were settling into a rented townhouse in Herndon, Chris made us laugh again.

Debra and I went for a walk one evening this week. As we returned home and turned the corner onto Rose Petal Circle, Debra laughed suddenly and said, “Oh my God. Look.” She pointed to the small bed of flowers in front of our front stairs. There sat Mystery Fawn.

The only way to describe this new iteration of Mystery Fawn, whom we’ve dubbed Califawnia, is from the ground up.

Mystery Fawn

Our little friend sits on a California-shaped slab of foam which is split at the top by a bold red lightning bolt which doubles as the harbinger of doom for the data center (death by lightning strike) and the twin earthquakes which rocked our house in April (epicenter: two miles away under some dude’s driveway up the street). Califawnia is threatened by flames and wears a surgical mask so he can breathe while he fights fires with a garden hose and save the homes of the neighborhood.

Mystery Fawn

His shiny coat is smudged with soot and he’s got bandages binding his wounds. A dashing silvery-pink scarf blows lustily in the Santa Ana winds, defiantly announcing that yes, winds of Calistupida, you may fill my pool with dirt and ash and leaves and soot and make me labor for hours every day to clean it, but I’m going to look like million bucks while doing it!

Mystery Fawn

Screw you, Calipocalypse, Califawnia says. I see your disasters. I see your betrayals and stupid natural calamities and I stick out my tongue at you and say nyah nyah because I am home and I am whole and I am, once again, among friends.

And so Chris, I wrap up this very long piece by saying to you, thank you. Thank you for Mystery Fawn. And thank you for being a fantastic neighbor, a port in the storm, an encyclopedia of knowledge, a co-conspirator and, most of all, a damn good friend.

Now I’ve got to find a way to one-up you on the next Mystery Fawn. I already have an idea… :)

Ghost House

Posted by: elraymundo at 7:48 am on Monday, July 6, 2009
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Lotus Blossom, Travel, Family, Self-Spotting, Ah, Memories

The strangest thing happened when Debra and I pulled out of the driveway of our house in Yorba Linda. The house was sold, the movers had gone with our stuff and we were leaving the state of California to move back to Virginia. And we felt nothing. And I mean nothing. No sadness, no remorse, no relief…not even a sensation that we had lived there for the most tumultuous year of our lives.

When we bought the house we thought we’d live in it forever. It was going to be the TeamRaymond Ancestral Home. We were going  to landscape the big hill in the back yard with terraces and fruit trees and hibiscus and sweet-smelling jasmine. We dreamed up plans to expand the pool, add Italian villa-style arches and patio tiles and columns with water that cascaded out of them and splashed back into the pool. Over time it would become a back yard oasis of the kind often seen in southern California - our place to sit and relax and return to from our travels. We were going to make the inside like the riads we saw and fell in love with in Morocco. I found kits to arch the doorways and sites selling beautiful mosaic tiles. Debra had the kitchen of her dreams (or so she thought) and was going to spend her time testing and developing recipes for her chef in Washington, DC and cooking fabulous, delicious meals for us - something she loved to do. We fought for this house, saved it from burning down in November during the Triangle Complex wildfires by spraying flames with a garden hose. And, since they lived less than three miles away, we were going to get the chance to watch our niece and nephew grow up and we could be the cool aunt and uncle with the swimming pool.

Then it all fell apart.

The job I was promised was pulled out from under me in March. We never got settled into the house and though it was a beautiful house it never became a home. The boxes in the garage were never unpacked. The walls were never repainted. We didn’t even get the 20 years worth of wall scuffs and carpet stains from the previous owners cleaned up because we never knew when I was going to have to go back on some insane 24×7 schedule at the data center, or when it would blow up again and I would be gone for 36 or 26 or 22 hours. And once my job was taken from me we pretty much lost any home improvement steam we had remaining after the endless slog that November to March had been.

I know others have had worse times than Debra and I did. Our health was and remains good. :::taps the wooden window shutters with his fingers::: We’ve escaped with a nest egg to begin rebuilding with. I have a good job, and we both have good friends, waiting in Virginia. But five months of constant turmoil (wildfires, mudslides, lightning strikes, power outages, job upheaval, job loss, etc) really took it out of us and once it became obvious that carrying the house with no guarantee of future income was too great a risk for us to take, well, all those dreams and ideas we had for the Ancestral Home died.

We had some bizarre conversations in the two days prior to leaving. Neighbors whom we had not seen or heard from since we hosted a neighborhood party back in December called and came over to wish us well and tell us how sad they were that we were leaving. It was touching and heartfelt, but we both wondered, “Where were you the last six months?” One of the things we liked about the house on Stonehaven Drive was its privacy. We discovered that privacy also meant isolation - until a SOLD sign goes up in the front yard, then suddenly everyone comes out of the woodwork.

After the year we’ve had I didn’t expect the same emotion when we left Yorba Linda that we felt when we left Great Falls, Virginia. As badly as we both wanted to leave Virginia and try something new, it was still really, really hard to go. Especially for Debra. I figured there would be some sort of emotion when we left Stonehaven Drive. Maybe it would be relief or elation or sadness or bitterness - but there was nothing. I simply pointed the Jeep down the hill and we left. No emotion, no tears. (For Debra, the tears will come today when we leave Rancho Mirage and her family behind. Being near family - both hers and mine - has been the one bright, shining star in our time here.) Already our memory of the house is like the house itself: vacant.

It’s been less than forty-eight hours since we left the Ancestral Home and neither of us feels like we ever lived there. 5145 Stonehaven Drive has become a ghost house. It’s an overused expression, but it really does feel like a dream, like the whole year didn’t really happen and that we’re just out here visiting family and getting ready to head back home. (Although heading east with a Jeep packed with odd items like bath mats, a telephone and laundry basket hooks kind of illustrates the fact that this is not an ordinary return from vacation.) For both of us this dreamlike memory of the house is a very strange, very surreal, sensation. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette, wearing a cardigan sweater and feeling very much at home again in my old sitcom.

Anyway, we leave the desert today and we’re heading for Flagstaff, Arizona. We plan to spend the night there then continue across the top of New Mexico - supposedly a gorgeous drive - and stay in Taos the next night, stopping to see the massive meteor crater in Winslow and the Petrified Forest National Park along the way. After Taos we’ll drop down to Amarillo and head east along I-40 until we hit I-81. From there it’s a pretty straight shot to northern Virginia and back home.

How To Catch The Ebola

Posted by: elraymundo at 10:47 pm on Wednesday, June 17, 2009
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Lotus Blossom, Minnesota, Ah, Memories

I’ve been going through boxes of stuff, trying to whittle down the amount of things that we’ll move back east after the house sale closes on the 30th. “Going through stuff” is very dangerous for me. I’m a pack-rat and a sentimentalist and the process of going through even a small box of papers can take me hours. If there are photos, old journals or stories…well, let’s just say I am helplessly obligated to endlessly re-examine whatever historical epoch of my life is reflected in the artifacts contained in the box.

Tonight, for example, I shredded several pale blue sheets of paper that I had received in 1981, each documenting my completion of a self-guided curriculum called a PACE. Each certificate shouted “CONGRATULATIONS!!!” in a giant, bold-faced Arial font, along with the course, score and date of completion, all wrapped around a line-art sketch of a man, young girl and young boy, each very high-cheekboned and Caucasian and very well-dressed and probably drawn by the same guy who illustrated those wretched Chick tracts that used to scare the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid. I had forgotten all about PACEs, along with most of the rest of whatever happened in the eighth grade, but I did remember that I went to school at Chapel Hill Academy, a Christian school in the suburbs of Minneapolis and that the curriculum was self-study; students learned and did their work at their own pace with guidance and help from the teachers.

(Hence the acronym PACE. I have no clue what the letters in PACE stand for - it’s been 28 years since I was in the eighth grade - although I suspect the letter “C” stands for either “Christ” or “Christian.” I have a strong hunch it didn’t stand for “C, as in Charles comma Darwin.”)

(Aha! A quick Google search has turned up “Packets of Accelerated Christian Education” in an online article dated May 27 2009. The PACE, apparently, is alive and well - in Alton, Illinois, at least.)

This is one of Lisa’s PACE certificates…I didn’t think to scan one until after I shredded mine.

Anyway, I shredded several PACE certificates congratulating me for my 100% scores in Science and Social Studies. There were only one each for English Literature and English Grammar. I find that interesting because I was an English major in college, but looking back over my life I realize I’ve had a consistent interest in astronomy, geology, physics and things that roar, like dinosaurs and loose women. Maybe those PACEs knew something I didn’t?

So I fed the shredder little bits of my life: an MFL (Michael’s Football League) schedule, documented in my sprawling 13 year old hand on spiral notebook paper in multiple colors of felt-tip ink, tracking in detail the 1980 season I played out on my electric football game with the little plastic players (which I still have stashed in a box in the garage), the aforementioned PACE certificates, a couple of Bible class quizzes on the book of James and the book of Hebrews printed in the dull purple ink from a mimeograph machine (I must not have been paying attention; I scored a 25/40 on James and the Hebrews treated me even worse: 24/40), four pages of a cartoon creature called Hungry Harold that were probably drawn during the class lectures on James and Hebrews and a bright yellow speeding ticket I got in 1985. (I think I got the ticket on Joe Rogers Road while driving my ’79 Chevy Monte Carlo - sweet chocolate brown, baby! - with my left foot out the driver’s side window.)

And then I came across this gem. (Please keep in mind this list was probably published in the late 70s or early 80s. Anyone who has bought a home in the last 10 years will giggle when they get to item #20.)

SCALE OF STRESS VALUES (life change units)
Death of spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Jail term 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Fired at work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of a family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sex difficulties 39
Gain of new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to a different line of work 36
Change in number of arguments with spouse 35
Mortgage over $30,000 31
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Son or daughter leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Wife or husband begins or stops work 26
Begin or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in work hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 19
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 19
Mortgage or loan less than $30,000 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family get-togethers 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Christmas 12
Minor violations of the law 11

Dr. Thomas H. Holmes predicts that people run the risk of developing a major illness in the next two years if they total more than 300 LCU points. (LCU = life changing units)

So. 300 points gets you an anxiety attack or a stroke or the ebola. Debra and I scored a 458. And that’s with earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, IRS problems, lightning strikes, power outages and betrayal not even appearing on the list.

Give It to Meeee!

Posted by: elraymundo at 2:24 pm on Friday, December 14, 2007
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Travel, Ah, Memories

For whatever reason I was remembering the last time I was in Amsterdam. It was 1996 and I took a canal-boat tour with a Dutch girl I was seeing. On the boat were a lot of Polish businessmen and their wives. As we passed through the city’s famous Red Light District one burly fellow, his shirt open to expose a very hairy chest and a thick gold chain, yelled to the prostitutes above us as he pounded his chest, “GIVE IT TO MEEEE! GIVE IT TO MEEEE!”

On another note, it was very foggy and hazy on the drive to work this morning. With just a little imagination, and if you looked away from the concrete of Route 28, you could imagine yourself somewhere in a misty moor in Scotland or Wales, or perhaps in some medieval Norse woodland. The trees alongside the road were staggered in ranks, each cloaked in a progressively lighter shade of grey as they receded from the eye. At one point the sun backlit a building, illuminating the fog and creating a glowing halo around the structure. It could have been Hamlet’s Elsinore, with mists creeping and swirling outside its walls as intrigues swirled within. But then I saw that it wasn’t a Danish castle at all but instead a Hampton Inn & Suites and the spell was broken.

Then I decapitated a banana and ate breakfast. (In all my years as an eater of bananas I have never cleanly snapped off the entire top end of a banana when peeling it. The whole top just sheared off in my hand, in a neat clean line, with the fruit of the banana inside the skin, which it wore like a yellow hat. It was the weirdest thing.)


Posted by: elraymundo at 8:10 am on Wednesday, December 5, 2007
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Lotus Blossom, Nature, Ah, Memories

I woke up this morning, shuffled out into the upstairs hallway with my hair sticking up in eight directions, looked out the second floor window over the foyer and saw snow on the Davis’s driveway across the street.

“Snow!” I said to the barely lucid LaRay, who was still in bed.

“Snow?” she mumbled.


After five years of marriage we don’t have to say much to say a lot. I imagine in twenty years this entire exchange will be telepathic.

It’s supposed to snow all day. We should get an inch or two, according to the Snow Advisory that was published by Those Who Publish Such Things.

I laughed when I read the Snow Advisory. Growing up in Minnesota, we didn’t get Snow Advisories unless Fenris ate the sun and the endless winter arrived. We just went outside, snapped a three-foot-long icicle off the eaves and played Zorro swordfights in the yard.

Anyway, here is our Snow Advisory for today:




Virgil’s Note

Posted by: elraymundo at 10:24 am on Monday, November 12, 2007
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Friends, Nature, Self-Spotting, Ah, Memories

I got a check from Virgil the other day for the money I fronted him for his fantasy football team. There was a note in the envelope with the check that told me not to spend the money on fancy dancin’ girls. That won’t be a problem; the dancin’ girls I liked were never the fancy ones.

Virgil and I have been on three mountaineering trips together and he still kicks around in those sorts of remote places. His note got me to thinking: I think I need to get back on a mountain. It’s been seven years-plus since I was on Rainier and even longer since the two Katahdin trips. Maybe some snow and ice and clear, clean mountain air will get my mind right. And it doesn’t have to be the hardest route or anything super-challenging. No rappels off manky rope tied off on a stub of crumbly rock. No need to toe-point across a sheet of ice (although that was fun). I just want to get to the top, give a barbaric YAWP and then sit down and enjoy. Maybe eat a Cliff bar or something. Take some pictures. And breathe deeply.

The Doc

Posted by: elraymundo at 7:13 am on Friday, November 2, 2007
From: Great Falls, Virginia
Filed under: Lotus Blossom, Guitar, Ah, Memories

Last week I saw my doctor about the fainting episode on the plane.

“It looks like a vasovagal episode,” she said. “Nothing to worry about.”

“But,” said Debra with reasonable concern, “what do I do next time it happens?”

“Make sure he doesn’t bump his head,” said the doc. Then she looked at me. “When was your last physical?”

“May 2006.”

“You need to come in soon. Over 40?”

“Yes.” Following the advice of my over-40 guy friends, I looked at the doctor’s fingers. They were slender and well-manicured.

***** ***** *****

I was listening to Brown Sugar on the way to work this morning and laughed at a funny memory that came back to me.

Back a hundred years ago when I was young, I took guitar lessons. My teacher, John Morris, played in a cover band doing what was then called rock n roll and is now called classic rock. He told me about one night when they were playing Brown Sugar and, “when we got to the part at the end where they go I say yeah, yeah, yeah WOO! there was this girl in front who would lift her skirt up and scream WOO! with us. I think we played that part over and over for fifteen minutes.”

Anyway, not much of substance but a funny memory.