Sick As TWO Dogs


Sick As Two Dogs
November 2017

I had been gigging around Chicago for ten years when life took an unexpected turn, requiring fundamental changes in my lifestyle. After considering many alternatives, I surprised myself by deciding to pack up and move to Texas.

It was the most practical solution, but part of me was saying, "Texas? Really?" I'd been a Yankee all my life. What kind of culture-shock was I in for? Was I going to end up living in a house made of adobe brick, surrounded by cacti, sagebrush, and cows? I comforted myself with the thought that my allergies would probably disappear in that hot, dry, desert environment.

It's true, some places in the state look like the setting for a movie about the Old West, but San Antonio is not one of them. In fact, when I drove down in a big truck full of furniture to look for an apartment, I was astonished to find there had been so much rain, people were drowning at low water crossings on the city streets! For days, the news was full of reports about the locations where victims had been swept away compared to where the bodies had washed up. There were repeated warnings on the radio cautioning drivers to avoid taking chances. Every address on my list of available rentals seemed to require lengthy detours as fast-moving water flooded major roads. Was this what Texas was really like? Once I found a place to live, would I need to keep an inflatable raft on my back porch and a life jacket under the bed?

For some reason, I believed the San Antonio citizens who swore on the Alamo that monsoons were quite rare in this part of Texas. Taking a chance, I settled into an apartment...just in time for the hottest summer of my life. When I opened the front door to go somewhere, my skin would prickle the same way it did when I opened the door of a 450-degree oven to check on biscuits. The humidity was almost always high enough that sweat didn't evaporate. It just oozed out and pooled, soaking my clothes and eventually flowing earthward in rivulets. For the first time in my life, I became familiar with the sensation of sweat building up on my scalp underneath my hair. Who knew that was even possible?

In Chicago, I had learned to play it safe by carrying a candle, a blanket, and kitty litter in my van. If I were ever stranded in a blizzard, I could wrap myself in the blanket, and the candle was supposed to keep me from freezing to death. The kitty litter was to put under the back tires in case they were spinning out on snow or ice. I likewise kept a couple of cement blocks in the back, to help with traction by adding weight. In San Antonio, I had to learn the hard way that air-conditioning in a vehicle is absolutely necessary, as are sunscreen, dark glasses, and a hat. To ward off dehydration and heatstroke, my refillable water bottle had to become my constant companion.

Somehow, I survived the summer, only to discover that my hopes about allergy relief were completely unrealistic. I still remember how surprised I was the first time I stepped outside and was overcome by a sneezing fit. It was the first experience of what soon became very familiar. It turns out San Antonio is one of the top five "allergy capitals" in the country.

There are two allergy seasons each year. From November through March, there is a phenomenon known as "Cedar Fever" which attacks when mountain cedar trees are pollinating. Earlier in the fall comes hay fever season, which tortures us by adding ragweed and mold to the air. With wicked glee, Mother Nature has arranged it so the weather is most beautiful at exactly the same time the air is saturated with allergens. Unless we make a gas mask part of our daily attire, the very air we breathe is a hazard to our health.

In Illinois, November often brings snow, but here in San Antonio, it is one of my favorite months. I take joy in the frequent days of cool temperatures and low humidity. I am fueled by a great surge of energy, and I start to think Texas isn't so bad after all. Since I am no longer rushing from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned house, I have time to notice that the roof of the chicken coop has a hole in it, weeds are taking over the flower bed, and the screen door has developed some weird angles. Because there's only a short window of time before the next spell of brutal, soul-melting weather, I make plans to whip everything into shape before that deadline. As soon as I finish one job, I look around for something else to do—anything for an excuse to prolong my time in what is now the irresistible great outdoors. Somehow, I forget all about the pollen count until the first symptoms appear.

One golden fall day, I spent the afternoon in the chicken yard covering a big dog cage with a second layer of chicken wire to protect my baby hen, Sunny Delight. She was a lovely, golden yellow. Somehow her sister had perished the night before, a likely victim of our neighborhood killer possum. Before another nightfall, I had to make sure my one remaining Buff Brahma wouldn't end up like the first. The weather was just perfect for spending the day outside in the company of my small flock of friendly chickens. I didn't even mind the doo-doo stuck to the bottom of my shoes. I was aglow with the thought that I was going to win at least this one round in my perpetual battle with the local marsupial.

With "defeat possum" scratched off my to-do list, I went on to "tub drain." It didn't. The plumber I had employed when building my little house was a total amateur, but my budget was tight and she worked for free.

That plumber was me. That's the rotten part of being a do-it-yourself-er. If a problem develops with one of my crazy guess-work projects, no one else on earth is going to know how to fix it, so it's up to you-know-who.

And my plumbing is a far cry from conventional. I give myself a lot of headaches by being so environmentally friendly that I have to re-use all the gray water my house generates. Every molecule of H2O from my kitchen sink, washing machine, tub, and bathroom sink are routed out into the yard through a system that just may be a little more creative than necessary.

I freely admit that I am a terrible plumber. I am also completely unskilled at carpentry, painting, and other building and maintenance tasks, but I'll say this for me--I am persistent as hell. Having no real knowledge, I have to rely solely on my creativity. Every project I undertake is pretty much a shot in the dark. I start with a vague idea of what I want to accomplish and make it up as I go along.

I'm no good at working things out on paper ahead of time, either. Instead, I gather a bunch of likely-looking materials and start rearranging the parts by trial and error like a giant puzzle. If one attempt doesn't succeed, I dismantle it all and try again. If the parts I am working with are heavy, I can get pretty tired, but as a total amateur, this is the approach that seems to work best. I am disinclined to use a tape measure, preferring to guesstimate by eye. I can easily measure something wrong, or mix up the numbers, but when I slap two essential parts together, the result is as plain as day. They fit...or they don't. Most of the time, when I finally arrive at something that is halfway functional, I count it as a success. Fortunately, I have low standards and a high tolerance for minor inconveniences occasioned by my general ineptness.

No one else could ever live in my house. They wouldn't know how to survive its "idiosyncrasies".

For projects that involve hacking up my yard, I rely on the trusty 5-pound pickaxe I lucked into for two dollars at a yard sale. It's weathered and faded, and it looks like it means business. I feel like John Henry when I sling it. I need that kind of courage when tackling the Caliche soil for which San Antonio is notorious. I have it on good authority that there are roads here three hundred years old made of nothing but Caliche.

I was unafraid. I knew my pickaxe was the perfect tool for chopping out bad plumbing and replacing it with slightly better bad plumbing. Besides, I needed the aerobic exercise, and I wanted to avoid bringing in a professional. I knew the kind of look a real plumber might give me. I had seen the same expression on the faces of people wearing orange aprons at the hardware store when I asked for their help in finding a whats-it. They would always ask, "what do you plan to use it for?" When I'd try to answer, their heads would tilt, they'd raise an eyebrow, and novices with less training in customer service would roll their eyes. I'd rather work hard in the dirt myself than pay some stranger to criticize my previous efforts and question my sanity.

By subtle clues in my so-called landscaping, I was able to trace the serpentine path of whatever-it-was I had used to take gray water from the house to the large flower bed in the back yard. The bed overflows with the one plant I can get to grow there, and I delude myself with the notion that it camouflages my lack of grass.

Taking a deep breath and straightening my shoulders, I raised my trusty pickaxe and excavated the mess. With the maze-like tangle exposed, I marveled that anything at all had ever drained from my tub. It was easy to spot my mistakes since it looked like there was nothing but mistakes. I had used a PVC pipe that was too narrow, and a flexible vinyl hose that was too long. Apparently, I hadn't bothered to cut the hose to the right length, but instead, I'd scrunched it into a bundle and thrown some dirt over it. I guess I was in a hurry. (Okay, okay. I know what you're thinking. Here I am criticizing my previous efforts and questioning my sanity, but to my way of thinking, at least I'm not paying someone else to do it!

My building supplies warehouse is in the back of the chicken yard next to the fence under the overhanging green roof of the Carolina Jessamine bushes. To some people, it might appear to be just another ordinary pile of crap, but I knew that in there somewhere were valuable left-over pieces from all my previous attempts to irrigate my yard. Sure enough! I found all the PVC and connectors I needed to straighten out the path of the gray-water plumbing. No visit to the local hardware store was necessary. (Take THAT, Capitalist Swine!) The pack-rat in me was overjoyed. I just knew my pile of crap would come in handy someday! Calling on my childhood tinker-toy experience, I gleefully separated and rejoined components until my collage of plumbing parts looked like it might have a chance of functioning.


In a self-congratulatory mood, I troweled away uneven lumps of dirt from below the new/old pipes and stomped them down so I could dust some soil over them. According to my flexible definition of success, I gave the result a quick evaluation.
1. From a standing position over by the gate, I could hardly tell where I had hacked up the yard.
2. The white patches where the PVC showed through were actually pretty small.
3. Probably nobody would look closely at that part of the yard anyway.
4. Eventually, something would grow over the dirt and add more camouflage.
5. Only another amateur plumber would ever suspect what was under the slight ridge running away from my house.
6. In case I needed to modify my plumbing again someday, I would be glad I'd left some clues as to its path.
7. If I made the plumbing trail look any better, the rest of my yard would look worse by comparison.
8. It was time for a test of the new treating myself to the bubble bath I so richly deserved.

What a relief to jump in the tub and rinse away all the dust and dirt that had stuck to me as I sweat like a pig during the pickaxe stage. Boy, did I feel clean afterward! And I blew my nose extra carefully just in case I had inhaled some of the back yard.

But during all that aerobic exercise I must have sucked in several forests' worth of cedar allergens. The next day when I woke up, I wished I hadn't.

All my mucous membranes were lit up like Las Vegas--itchy and irritated and inflamed. It was probably allergies, but I couldn't be sure. It might be the beginning of a cold. I come within germ-sharing range of so many music students every week, and there is always the chance one of them has communicated something contagious. I crossed my fingers that it was a cold, not an allergy attack. Why? Because colds eventually go away. Allergic reactions can go on and on.

Wasn't it ironic that the previous week I had finished recording the best lead vocal and harmonies I had ever done in my life? I had worked hard to get my voice in good shape, warming up carefully every morning and exercising it now and then during the day. I wrote down a long list of every technique I could remember that had helped me sing in the past, and I diligently employed each one. All those efforts had paid off! I felt confident that I would be able to wrap up a few more recordings in no time at all.

Now that I was croaking like a toad, I could kiss those plans goodbye. Maybe I could lay down some bass vocals while I still sounded like Barry White with pneumonia, but as for anything else, I would be starting from scratch.

I knew for sure I had cedar fever when my favorite appliance repairman arrived this morning to fix my leaking washing machine. His nose was red and swollen and his eyes bloodshot. He sniffled. "Yep," he said. "Cedar fever is here." Cough. Sneeze. "It's supposed to be a bad year." As if I didn't already know.

That settled it. I was the victim of pollen, not germs. It was time to muster my supplies, modify my living space, and alter my routine.

Let's see--ear drops for the ringing and congestion, nose spray, eye drops for the irritation, Mucinex DM as an expectorant, tissues, Vicks Vapo-Rub, vitamin C, cough drops, personal steamer, tea, honey, lemon, antihistamine, decongestant, cough syrup, windows sealed, outdoor forays kept to a minimum, N95 air-filter mask to wear whenever I absolutely must leave my house, AC on to filter the air, dehumidifier to help the AC filter the air, app on my phone so I can check pollen count and allergy forecast.

I think that covers it all.

Goodbye, Great Outdoors.