Near-Death Vacation

Nine levels of switchback. Nine Circles of Hell. Coincedence?
Entrevaux Citadel

Yesterday, I thought I was going to die, all alone, while slowly approaching a French Citadel. Isn’t that what a vacation day on a business trip is all about?

Years ago, the Spousal Unit and I went to Southern France for a couple of weeks – I was on business, she was on vacation. Part of the time, we were both on vacation. On one of those days, we took the train to from Nice to Entrevaux, a Medieval city about two hours north of Nice. (Nice is a seaside town that is at the edge of the Mediterranean on one side and the edge of the Alps on the other.) So, Entrevaux is in the mountains.

Apparently, many years ago, somebody thought it would be a good idea to fortify the town by building a citadel (which means a fort way the hell up in the sky.)

“Monsieur, some evil people are attacking the town!”

“We need a citadel. How about putting it way up there out of sight?”

So, Entrevaux has a Citadel. The Spousal Unit and I shot some photos of it last time. From the ground. However, this time, I was not with my wife, I was with two of my co-workers. Co-workers desperately afraid they will miss something interesting while on a business trip with an open weekend in France. So, we climbed up to the Citadel. On foot.

So, the rest of this is a remembrance and tirade about taking a walk. Those of you in good shape who exercise regularly can roll your eyes and stop reading now. Those who know me and are already giggling or enjoy seeing me in pain (hello, family!) can continue on.

There was a helpful French guide at the foot of the climb who sold us our tokens to enter the passageway up. Three euros. Each. She said there were seven switchbacks along the way. She lied. The brochure says there are nine, as in the number of circles of Hell.

So, David from Austin, Sakamoto-san from Tokyo and I started the ascent. In retrospect, it is very clever to charge people for the opportunity to walk straight up into the sky. If you didn’t charge them, many would get to the foot of the walkway and decide against such a foolish escapade. With a charge, the thought is – “Hey, I don’t want to waste three euros!”

This is the same theory as joining a gym. At least you can skip going to the gym more easily than skipping the walk.

Quote: “How to get to the Citadel: Go through toll-gate [Editor: with the 3 euro token] and walk straight up for about 20 minutes. Easy walk on recently restored cobbled path (difference in height: 156 meters.)” Some key points, for those who don’t easily read between the lines:

  • Straight up. This is not an exaggeration, even though the path has seven to nine switchbacks.
  • Recently restored. France is in Europe. “Recently restored” could be sometime in the 1800s.
  • 156 meters. For Americans, that’s actually 511 feet which sounds a lot higher than 156 meters. However, you don’t actually walk straight up, you walk fifty-seven miles through the “seven” switchbacks. Rappelling would be 156 meters.

    Warning Sign
    This is not information. It is a warning.

David and Sakamoto-san are a lot like me, except for age, weight and general disposition. As they sprinted up the recently restored pathway, chatting happily, I got through the first switchback just barely before my heart began to pound.

Maybe I’ll just stop here and take a couple of photos. I’m not out of breath or anything, this is just a good vantage point, since it’s so close to the ground and all.

My colleagues are now out of sight. As well as out of earshot. So, at least now I can whimper in peace.

So, I’ll guess I’ll just stop here in the middle of the second switchback to {huff, puff} take some more photos. Wow. It’s already a long way down. I’m making progress! Wow. It’s an even further way up. I’m going to die.

Continue climbing.

Horrible realization – I don’t have a pen with me. I can’t leave a note for David and Sakamoto-san to find on the way down, asking them to deliver the camera back to the Spousal Unit. I also don’t have a safety pin to attach the note to my clothes before I breathe my last. Should I be concerned I’m already planning my last minutes on earth?

I’m only concerned about the camera because the Spousal Unit lent it to me before I left and asked me to re-shoot the town of Entrevaux, especially the Citadel. Hey! That means this is all her fault! Feel slightly better. Still out of breath.

Realize if I die on this walk, the Spousal Unit will just buy a truly expensive camera with her inheritance money. If I die, I’m throwing this camera off the mountain.

Continue climbing.

Horrible realization deux – I now know why I don’t remember the climb being this difficult the last time I was in Entrevaux. It’s not just because that was eight years and probably fifty pounds ago – it’s because we didn’t actually make the climb. So much for age and experience. I would yell at David for dragging me up this mountain, but he’s already at the top, and I’m here on the third switchback, out of breath. I mean, taking photos.

Well, {choke, wheeze}, at least I’m almost half-way there.

Continue climbing.

If Lance freakin’ Armstrong goes by on his bike, I’m putting a stick through his spokes.

Well, {sneeze, cough, whimper}, at least I’m almost half-way there.

Another Fort
Hey, that fort over there looks a lot lower.

Continue climbing.

Why am I not making any progress? I wonder what David and Sakamoto-san are doing at the top? I wonder if they will pass me on their way down? I wonder if they will recover my body?

Continue climbing.

Stop to catch my breath, uh, I mean, take some photos.

Meet a couple on the way down. Try to be polite without heaving too much. “Bonjour!”

Why do they look so damn happy? Oh, maybe it’s because they’re going down. Bastards. Wonder what “bastards” is in French? If I could get a WiFi signal, I could use Google Translate. Who am I kidding? If I had a WiFi signal, I would call for help.

Continue climbing.

Well, at least I’m almost half-way there.

I wonder if David and Sakamoto-san remember me?

Hey, I made it all the way through that switchback without stopping. I wonder why my heart is beating so far out of my chest?

I think that was switchback 27. If I ever make it down to safety, I’m kicking that cute tour guide in the butt, as soon as I catch my breath. And can move my legs.

Damn. More people coming down. Look pleased to be here. “Bonjour!” Well, at least a little old couple hasn’t passed me on their way up.

At least I’m almost half-way there.

Hmm. What kind of message does dying on Father’s Day send? I’d better get moving. I’ll just take a couple of photos, since this is a nice vantage point.

Dear Lord, if You could just give me one more chance and let me survive this easy climb on a restored cobbled path, I’ll build You a freakin’ chapel at the top, next to the Citadel.

At least I’m almost half-way there.

Looking down at Entrevaux
If I puke, will I hit the houses?


Holy Crap! (Sorry, Lord.) Another couple is heading down. How many old people think climbing a mountain to see an old fort is a rational idea? Were these guys stationed here at one time?

If this freakin’ Citadel is closed for lunch when I get up there, someone’s going to die. Unless I die first.

Bonjour. That man looked pleased to be descending. I’m pretty sure the woman said “Almost” in a slight whisper as she passed me. Almost to the top? Almost dead? Almost is some French word for “look at the fat guy dying on his easy walk”? I’m pretty sure that was a pity smile she gave me.

I wonder if it’s time to start saying “Bon soir”? I’ve been climbing for about fourteen hours (twenty minutes my ass) and it was late morning when we started.

Hey, at least my pants are getting looser. It’s either the altitude or the 37 1/2 pounds of sweat I’ve produced so far. It’s a bit warm in Southern France today.

If one of these couples calls the authorities, and I get med-evac’ed off this stupid easy climb, the first thing the Spousal Unit will say when the US Embassy calls is “Was he wearing sunblock?” What is wrong with her?

At least I’m almost half-way there.

Hey! That’s David up ahead! Hmm. I don’t remember him wearing a white robe. Why is there so much light behind him? Why is he telling me to come into it? Why are my grandparents behind him?

I think I have enough time to shoot some more photos.

At least I’m almost half-way there.

As I turned another corner in the 42 switchbacks, I wondered how the French architects and builders managed to make the switchbacks at the top longer than the ones at the bottom. I wonder if the French army lost any wars just because their soldiers couldn’t make it up to the fort in time. I wonder if the enemy soldiers could just dodge any arrows shot from the Citadel since it would take a half-hour for them to reach the ground?

Man, I thought that can of olive oil the Spousal Unit requested I purchase in Nice was going to be overweight luggage. Wait until IBM has to ship my corpse home. That is going to be one big-ass internal mail envelope.

Wait! This time, it really is David. I’m at the top. That was easy.

Where’s the welcoming party? The snack bar? The oxygen tents? The snack bar?

We’re at the damn top at last, let’s take some photos. Hey! A bench! Let’s rest, then take photos.

Well, that was fun. Let’s go down. Does France have a Care-Flite service?

Going down wasn’t nearly as bad as going up, and I did take a few more photos.

Entrevaux Citadel
French soldiers were stationed here, waiting for attack. I’m waiting for a heart attack.

I even kept David and Sakamoto-san in sight most of the time. Most of the time.

I only stumbled once, but I didn’t even fall, since I’m an experienced climber now. I did, however,  have a flash of rolling down a recently renovated cobblestone path, wiping out co-workers and tourists as I fell. Bowling for Tourists.

At the bottom, we saw a young couple with two bouncing sons in tow, approaching the entrance. I thought “That hike should calm those kids down.” Then, I thought, “This is going to be the vacation those kids discuss with their therapist.”

Once safely at the bottom, I realized that I had forgotten to build the Lord His chapel. Considering what He’s overlooked in my life so far, he may let that one slide. Come to think of it, it may not be the first chapel I’ve shorted Him.

Lord, I would go back and build Your chapel as promised, but I think that climb was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Mainly, because the next time would kill me, and I know how You feel about suicide.

I’m still alive. Next time, I’m buying posst cards at the gift shop and just telling people I made the climb.

David said he signed the guest book as “IBMers from Texas and Japan”. So, the next time you’re at the top of the Citadel, you can see my name in the book. Implied.

Wounded Knee

It’s time.

I don’t like going to the doctor and I’m very allergic to surgery, but I may be tolerating both very soon. It may be time to finally fix my knee.

My right knee went out yesterday while I was bending down to look at furniture at IKEA. If I tried to build it, it would probably be fatal. So, I’m back to limping around and no male my age likes to hear the word “limp”.

A bit of back-story – I hyper-extended my right knee in soccer practice in high school, either 1977 or 1978. I’m pretty sure it was junior year, so 1977. It hurt like hell when it happened, but the pain diminished rather quickly over time.

It was a stupid injury. I remember it like it was 35 years ago. I was playing fullback, chasing down a ball, cut back around one of my classmates, slipped and landed full-force on my right knee. I landed so hard, I kicked myself in the butt. This is known as “hyper-extension” and it is very bad. In exotic dancers, it’s called “flexibility” and is much more popular to watch.

I spent a couple of days at home with ice or heat (who remembers?) on my knee and spent the rest of the season on the sidelines. I was on the JV anyway, so it wasn’t that much of a demotion.

My mom took me to see an orthopedic surgeon and he said it wasn’t hurt badly enough to fix. Apparently, in the 70’s, there were knee injuries and then there were real knee injuries. He invited me to come back if I ever really hurt it. So, I finally had a knee injury after six or seven years of playing soccer, which would be cool, and it wasn’t worth fixing.

So, I can still say, “Yeah, tore up a knee playing soccer”, but there’s no cool scar to show off, and if you played soccer in Texas, it meant you couldn’t make the football team.

Over the years, it would go out every now and then. I would limp for a couple of days, and then it would straighten itself out and I’d be back to normal. So, I never really saw a reason to have it checked since a) it didn’t cause pain very often and b) it wasn’t bad enough to fix anyway. The most annoying part of the recurring pain was that it was completely unpredictable and it didn’t help determine the weather, like some injuries. Maybe only bad hips can tell when it will rain.

Fast-forward to December, 2009. My knee went out again. My wife convinced me to go see her knee specialist – she has a guy for almost every part of her body, which is not as slutty as it sounds, it just means she gets injured a lot.

First question – “When did this injury occur?” “Uh. That’s a good question – either 1977 or 1978, I’m not really sure.” Dramatic pause. “Why are you coming to see me now?” A clever answer would have been “Because now I have insurance and can afford you”, but I told the truth – it only went out sporadically and I had an existing (approximately 32-year old) medical opinion that it wasn’t worth fixing, anyway.

Dramatic pause. “Somebody told you it wasn’t worth fixing??”

“Yes, I had it checked right after the injury happened.”

“Ah. 1977. Well, back then, it might not have been worth it. Now, we can fix it.”

I assumed this meant prices have risen enough to cost-justify the doctor, hospital and related costs associated with out-patient surgery. (I also wondered if it was the same doctor, since he was not exactly young.)

So, then the questions went on – had I considered rebuilding it? Would I use my own tendon or a cadaver’s? (“Wow. Literally a dead man walking.” Even the doctor smiled.) It sounded painful, but doable – just a matter of scheduling. Then he mentioned the one major problem – no travel for up to six weeks after surgery.

Remember, this was in December. I was still in Lotus. January is Lotusphere. I was presenting. So, no surgery in December or January. February I had customer visits scheduled. March was end of quarter and completely unpredictable as to travel. By April, I had forgotten my knee had gone out.

A few months later, I received a lovely card from the doctor, as did my wife. He was retiring. “Oh, shit. I was going to have him fix my knee.” So, I forgot about it.

A couple of weeks ago, my knee went out. Ouch. I hobbled a bit, and it went back. Then, my left knee popped.

An unsettling thought occurred – “Hmm. Which knee did I actually injure in high school?”

If you can’t remember which knee you hurt in high school, perhaps your time there were not your “Glory Days”, in spite of what the Boss may say.

Both knees straightened themselves out in a couple of days.

Yesterday, I knelt down to look at the back of an entertainment unit my wife wanted to purchase and when I straightened up, BOOM! My right knee (“Dammit! That’s the one I hurt!”) popped out. It hurt. A lot. It was excruciating. It was much worse than usual. At first, I could barely wobble, and even though we were in a furniture store, there weren’t any chairs around to get off of it. So, I staggered around drunkenly until I found the proper limping motion to keep the weight off my leg, and then I was able to walk. Barely.

Bravely, my wife continued shopping. It’s why I love her so.

Eventually, we loaded the five boxes of the entertainment center parts into the car. Ouch. We drove home. We unloaded the five boxes of the entertainment center parts. Ouch. Ouch. (I dropped the end of one of the boxes on my foot. Try hopping in pain on a bad knee. It’s redundant.)

We went out to dinner. We parked uphill across the street from the restaurant. Ouch.

We went home. We walked the dogs. Ouch.

Finally, I tried to just lie down and put my leg up, but I couldn’t find a comfortable position. Luckily, I had dogs pushing me in various directions, trying to help me find the right way. Ouch.

I thought, “The last time this happened, I slept it off. So, I should be better in the morning.” That was last time. This time, notsomuch. So, for the first time in years, I called in sick – although I can actually just work from home, so I’m not really out sick, I’m just not in the office. Technically, it was more calling in “can’t drive“.

I had to tell some of my team why I wasn’t in. I’m sure the word has spread on the floor, so now everyone at the office knows why hiring the elderly is a risk. Also, I weigh slightly more than I did in high school, so nobody believes the “tore up my knee playing soccer” line, anyway.

Tomorrow, I go to see the orthopedic surgeon. Not my orthopedic surgeon, of course, since he retired. His replacement. I have a feeling my knee may have a replacement, as well.

If they fix one knee and not the other, I hope I don’t walk in circles.

Bubba Elvis Gilhooly, 2000 – 2011

Bubba Elvis Gilhooly
Bubba Elvis Gilhooly

Bubba Elvis Gilhooly crossed the bridge due to heart failure on December 15, 2011, with his parents at his side. We thank the staff of the eClinic for their caring support at the end. He will be sorely missed.

Bubba, a black and white parti Cocker mix, was born April 25, 2000 in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the son of Romeo and Juliet Pesce. He was well-traveled as a puppy, as he was born in Virginia, drove to New Jersey to meet his new parents and then flew home to Texas before he was six months old.

Bubba was a wedding gift to Kevin and Virginia Gilhooly. Virginia had grown up with dogs in her house, so Kevin agreeing to have a  dog was actually written into their wedding vows. As Kevin had agreed to have a dog, Virginia allowed him to choose a name. Kevin chose “Bubba” as a name – which was horrifying to someone from the Northeast. Nevertheless, Virginia soon learned to stand by the back door and yell “Bubba!” without (much) embarrassment. (After Virginia began to groom him at home, the hair on the top of his head became more and more like Elvis’, which gave him his middle name.)

Bubba quickly took over the house after he moved in. He never managed to teach Basil, the English Budgie to bark, although he tried. Virginia learned that having a puppy is not the same as having a dog. Kevin learned patience, although it took time.

Bubba did learn very quickly. He was the only dog in the household that would ring a string of bells on the door when he needed to go out. As more dogs entered the household, he would ring the bells if any of them needed to go out, as well, which prevented any of the other dogs from ever learning this trick. [Years later, Katie would ring the bells when she was bored.]

Patrolling the yard

During his first winter, he had company in the form of Flower Pesce, who lived with Virginia’s Mom in New Jersey. Flower and her Mom came down to escape the cold, so Bubba had a playmate for a few months. When Flower went home that Spring, Bubba seemed very depressed. Virginia and Kevin then decided to adopt another dog, so he would have company. So, Ripley entered the household. Kevin chose Ripley for adoption at a Richardson Humane Society event, although Ripley later decided he preferred Virginia. However, everyone knew he was really Bubba’s dog. (Flower and her Mom eventually moved in permanently.)

Bubba had cherry eye when he was a puppy, and it took five surgeries to repair it. This began his long history of veterinary visits – by the time of his passing, he had an allergist, an opthomologist, a cardiac specialist and multiple “everyday” vets. He had more (and better) specialists than his parents, who are still trying to figure out how to get his doctors to treat them. Amazingly, with all the doctors who would prod and poke him over the years, he loved going to the vet.

Actually, he just loved going for car rides. If Virginia asked him if he wanted to go “bye-bye in the car”, he would run to the back door and whimper until she appeared with a leash and took him to the car. A bonus on the car ride would be anyone standing on a street corner while the car stopped for a red light, since that was someone that could be barked at until the light turned green.

Bubba was the first dog to sleep on the bed in the Gilhooly household, and the first to abandon it. After other dogs joined the house, he decided there was much more room to spread out on the floor, so he gave up his bed privileges for the wide open spaces. (It was probably cooler down there, as well.)

Bubba’s medical history actually helped lead to Murphy joining the family – Murphy had been considered “non-adoptable” because he had dry eye. As Virginia was already applying eye medicine to Bubba’s eyes every day, adopting a dog with dry eye was not an issue.

Bubba had cataract surgery as an adult, but was still mostly blind for the last years of his life. It never seemed to slow him down, although when walking, he did appear to be in a pinball machine at times. He could not find his way around as quickly, unless there was food at his destination.

As he got older, he was taking more and more medications, which eventually required that he be fed more often than the rest of the dogs, just to give him his morning pills. Luckily, he had learned the command “let’s go get coffee” earlier, and knew that meant to go to the kitchen. None of the other dogs ever learned this trick. It started because while Kevin worked at home, he would make coffee every morning before beginning work, and Bubba would go along, because he had also figured out that the cookie jar was near the coffee pot. After a few days, “Let’s go get coffee!” meant “Go to the kitchen and stand by the cookie jar.”

Bubba’s other unusual commands:

Go in your crate and get a cookie” – the fastest way to get him (and most siblings) in the house and into their crates when  his parents needed to go out. Bubba could learn to do anything if cookies were involved.

Let me see your belly!” – before his allergies were under control, he would have ointment or spray applied to any areas that were broken out. “Roll over” seemed too simplistic, I suppose, so when he was told “Let me see your belly!”, he would roll over and wait for medication.

I need your eyes” – also medically-minded. Bubba had two or three ointments applied to his eyes each day. He would avoid them at all costs – except if treats were involved. Since his parents couldn’t offer treats without all the dogs volunteering to get eye ointment, Bubba learned that “I need your eyes” meant ointment followed quickly by treats.

Almost napping
Almost napping

In his final days, he was assistant baby-sitter for Caleb Gilhooly, Virginia and Kevin’s grandson. Bubba would guard the baby’s crib whenever Caleb visited, mainly because food would often be tossed out of it. Caleb preferred Bubba over the other dogs because he was the quietest.

He is survived by his siblings, Ripley, Murphy, Katie and Flower,  his parents, Kevin and Virginia, and his playmate Caleb.

Christmas Anonymous

I really don’t like the holidays. Actually, I dread the holidays. I spend the time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s in a deep depression. I’m constantly on the edge of tears. I don’t know why. (I have my suspicions, but publishing them would probably offend a lot of people.) So, I thought what is really needed is an organization to help those of us who dread the holidays. We need Christmas Anonymous.

Now, Christmas Anonymous would be built on the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the foundation for many successful recovery programs. Even people who have never had a drink have probably heard of the Twelve Steps. (In fact, somebody may have already done this work, in which case, I apologize. Doing it has been rather cathartic for me.)

I’ve only been to one AA meeting in my life (on a date – which can tell you how well the relationship worked), and it was an amazing experience. It was a religious experience, as well – only people who share the same dark secret can relate to your true issues and from that relation can come salvation.

So, I’ve taken the original Twelve-Step program (quoted from Alcoholics Anonymous – thank you, Bill W.), and translated it for those of us who can’t seem to cope with the holidays. You’re out there. You’re hurting. You’re not alone.

I read the Twelve Steps just before I went to the AA meeting. Until then, I had no idea what the steps were (although since then I’ve received apologies from alcoholic friends over the years, so I recognized that was one of them.) Some people think AA’s Twelve Steps are very close to a religion – God is mentioned everywhere throughout them. While this may offend some non-alcoholics who think “it’s only a drinking problem”, in the case of Christmas Anonymous, I believe it is absolutely a core part of the solution. (As the sarcastic would say: What? God in Christmas? Surely not.)

Here are the Twelve Steps, for members of Christmas Anonymous.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over Christmas. No matter how hard we wished or bitched, it would still arrive every year on December 25th. Ads begin just after the Fourth of July.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. In this case, perhaps trying to restore the true meaning of Christmas as a religious holiday rather than a reason to spend ourselves into debt will help us through the season.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Wouldn’t Christmas be an excellent time to rededicate yourself to your beliefs? You don’t have to be Christian, but if you’re pummeled by Christmas music and commercials anyway, take a moment to connect with your God. 
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Why do we hate Christmas? Is it religious? Financial? Fear? Relationships?
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our hatred of Christmas. Tell your significant other, friend or family member why you’re so cranky during the holidays. Find someone who will actually listen. If nothing else, blog about it. 
  6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. This should always be true whether you hate Christmas or love drugs.  
  7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. Perhaps this would be a good private prayer during Christmas services. If you avoid services, take a moment on Christmas to ask your God for this. 
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Who avoids you during the holidays? They’re on this list.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. In most cases, this is probably a sincere apology to friends and family for being such an asshole during the holidays.
  10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. You’re not going to get through every Christmas unscathed. Remember this. Keep trying.
  11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. If you can find God, you can celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. It was one at one time. 
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others in pain during the holidays, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Find others who hate Christmas, and give them this message. Think what else you hate as much as the holidays, and apply the steps. 

Merry Christmas!