Our year has been terrible like everyone else. The kids lost jobs, had opportunities taken away and had anxiety throughout the year and fear about the future. And more. But there have been many bright spots, namely, Rosemary. She’s been a bright spot for our family. She’s been going for a daily walk, um, every day. Rocky goes with her. He grabs his leash from the bench near the front door and carries it to the gate. He likes pooping out in the wilderness like a real animal. I had spinal fusion surgery. Fortunately, I had my wisdom teeth taken out 40 years ago, so I was totally prepped for neck surgery. One month later I started biking and I haven’t stopped since. I’m currently in Nova Scotia.
Carli moved into her first apartment with her former co-worker/current boyfriend Jon Rose in Montclair, N.J. (That’s right, Carli Rose and Jon Rose.) Together, they hosted a teach-in about a Christopher Columbus statue. Did you know that Columbus never stepped foot in America? They drew a crowd and required a police escort to their car.
Gina graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in May. In Tucson, she grows succulents, paints, journals, does pottery and coaches swimming. Sam and his friend Josiah dropped some dope music on Spotify under the name of Candy Boy. Sam has musical gifts. He won a Karaoke contest with his rendition of the SNL Digital Short song, “I Threw It on the Ground.” He lives with us in Tucson. He sometimes walks with Rose, but he usually poops in the house.
So, let’s not waste any more time, let’s get right to it, the 2021 holiday letter. Here we go …
Please silence your phones and settle in. And always remember, there is no smoking in the Metrodome.
Dear Family and Friends:
It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times.
I visited my dermatologist. She was concerned with my scalp and not because it is sans hair. She saw my scalp as a minefield of possible skin cancer. I had a couple pre-cancerous growths froze off my head in Colorado, so she gave me some goop to slathered onto my scalp every day for six weeks. She also gave me some advice.
She advised me to … avoid the sun … in Tucson.
I would describe the sun here in Tucson as omnipresent. Difficult to avoid, lessen you were a gopher or badger, who lives in a hole in the ground, which I am not. (I don’t have scalp cancer.)
I have a high-pain tolerance. I can put up with things that others simply would not. Like my shoulder pain. My right shoulder has been in pain and/or discomfort often for years. In Colorado, I was diagnosed with an ‘aggravated nerve,’ following a procedure called an electromyography, in which a needle electrode is inserted directly into a muscle to record the electrical activity in that muscle. They did 5-6 insertions, if I’m remembering correctly. The ‘aggravated nerve’ was causing a frequent ‘buzzy’ feeling in my deltoid, bicep, triceps and even my flactoid muscle.
Driving a car, typing, standing, sitting, breathing would all cause the buzzy sensation and pain.
In Tucson, I tried many solutions. I saw a physical therapist, did those suction cup things with my massage therapist, got an X-ray, then finally an MRI. If you haven’t had an MRI, it feels like you are being swaddled up like an infant or a burrito and slid into a gigantic toaster oven. It’s a different experience. The MRI showed that I had severely compressed nerves in my spinal column. The images were sent to a neurosurgeon.
I go back to my primary care doctor. We discuss the MRI. She says that in addition to the compressed nerves, the images showed that I had an “abnormality” on my tongue. She tried to play it cool, but it is obvious, and I mean obvious, that she thinks ‘that thing on my tongue’ is cancer.
I see an ear, nose and throat guy. He asks, “Are you a smoker?” I said no. “Have you ever?” I said no. And fuck him, he actually exhaled deeply, sighing in relief, like a giant stone was lifted from his chest. “Oh, okay, let’s continue,” he says, “but it’s probably nothing.” He put a camera down my nose. Said it was an impressive tonsil. Not cancer. Probably.
I have a zoom meeting with the neurosurgeon. He seems like a good guy. He said my options are … to do nothing, get injections from a pain management center or surgery. Surprisingly, the surgeon thinks I should do the surgery. It’s out patient. In and out. No big deal. “I’ve done 3,500 of ’em.” It’s a super high-tech meeting. He holds up his phone to his laptop camera to show me a healthy spine compared to my super fucked-up spine. He tells me that the compressed nerves were the result of degenerative, arthritis-filled discs. “You did nothing wrong.”
He explains the procedure. “We go in through the front of your throat, make a four-inch incision here. Afterwards you’ll feel some discomfort, but that’s just because I move your esophagus over during the operation.” The plan is to place artificial grafts in between two sets of vertebrae in my neck, then fuse it in place, a spinal fusion.
It’s the same operation that every wrestler you’ve ever heard of has had after receiving one too many pile drivers.
So, I was pretty bummed after all these doctors’ appointments, but not so bummed that I couldn’t still see beyond myself. I knew that I personally could do my part to help others in need in my community, like those folks who work at the liquor store.
Did you do this? I mean, besides binge watching and drinking. Did you buy things online that you didn’t necessarily need? I did. I bought cologne late at night after a few belts. I don’t actually wear cologne. But I searched for a cologne that smelled like the desert and found a perfection match. GQ described the cologne. “Hermes has a certain arid minerality that pairs perfectly with warm dry days. It’s like the wonders of a desert landscape in a bottle.”
Interesting note, the cologne is called Terre d’Hermès. And we have a family friend named Terri Hermes. And she too has a delightful aroma. Earthy.
Okay, so after that successful online purchase, I was ready to go shopping again. I found a shirt I liked on Facebook. I ordered the shirt. Many weeks later the shirt arrived all the way from China. It wasn’t exactly the same design seen in the ad nor was it the fabric mentioned, but when I tried it on, I had to keep it. My first lady blouse. Feels fantastic and as Gina’s friend Michelle noted, “That shirt’s dope.”
Walking in the Wash
About two weeks prior to the surgery, I was walking on a trail under the power lines in the middle of the wash. I was heading up a slight incline when I feel an electrical shock to the side of my right heel. Felt like a snake snapped and bit me hard. My water bottle goes flying. I must have looked like someone walking into a spider web. Or more accurately, like someone who just got bit by a diamondback. My arms flail about.
I look down to see what has bitten me, but I’m sporting sunglasses with 10-year-old prescriptions … I see a vague outline of a foot. I bravely slap at whatever might be snacking on my ankle.
There is no snake that I can see. But that doesn’t mean anything. Evolution has given animals in the wild a myriad of ways to conceal their presence. I examine my foot more closely. I don’t see the two bloody bite marks that I expect to see. It doesn’t hurt to touch the spot. Maybe I just kicked my right foot with my left foot? Then I think about KD. Kevin Durant. See him sitting on the court holding his ankle. Did I just blow up my Achilles? There’s no pain. My Achilles seems pretty intact.
When you’re older things just break or fall off of you. Anything’s possible. Everything’s on the table.
I keep walking. I walked for three more miles. I even ran a little. I get home and tell Rose and Sam the story. Exactly what I just told you. I stayed up a little late watching a movie, and then when I was getting up to go to bed, my ankle is surprisingly and completely hurting and stiff. I guess I did injure myself.
I go to bed. Man, my ankle is killing me. I can’t find a position to lay my foot down that does not hurt. At 1 a.m., I tell Rose. Help me, please. I am hurting. She jumps into action. Gets me some Advil and props my foot up with a pillow and a bag of ice. The ice soothes like you wouldn’t believe, like it was putting out a fire. My ankle sizzled like an egg hitting the frying pan.
Later, I have to go to the bathroom. I can’t put any weight on my right foot. And I mean, no weight at all. I can’t walk. What is going on? I’m having troubled thoughts. I’m hip deep at work. I think about work and how I won’t be able to work in the morning because I’m obviously going to the hospital. I’m going to need reconstructive ankle surgery. I get to have the spinal fusion while I’m relearning how to walk. That’s just great. Finally, I fall asleep.
In the morning, I wake up and put my feet on the ground. My right foot hurts, but it’s a thousand times better. I can walk without assistance. I’m happy. It feels like I had a bad fever and the fever broke, which for my simple mind, points me to thinking that I did get bit by something.
The day of the spinal surgery I note that there’s some similarities to the feelings I had prior to running a marathon or biking a century. The morning of the big event, when there’s no turning back, you might say to yourself, “How did I get here?” or “Oh no, what have I done?” or “Is there any way I can get out of this?”
I’m the only person in this gigantic waiting room, but I’m only in there for a minute, before they bring me backstage to get prepped. Just for fun, they have me disrobe.
I ask, “Would now be a good time to visit the bathroom?”
The nurse gets me started with an IV in my hand. She also wraps my lower legs in some sort of device that is meant to keep my legs from clotting during the 2 1/2-hour surgery. Since it’s freezing in this hospital, David Letterman-studio cold, she covers me in blankets.
The first of many, a medical guy stops by. He’ll be monitoring my muscle reaction to the nerve manipulation. He’ll make sure everything is working. He asks me if I’m staying the night. I say no. Out-patient.
I tell him, “I don’t have to go now, but I’ll want to visit the bathroom before surgery.”
He said, “You definitely should do that.”
Next up, the anesthesiologist. In addition to knocking me out, he is going to monitor my brain waves. Cool. He asks all kinds of questions, like how did you end up here today? I had to convince him that the operation was necessary. I got the impression that this guy thought I walked in off the street and ordered up the spinal fusion special. I said, no, I have degenerative discs. I’ve had symptoms. I have a diagnosis. It was actually Dr. Scully who suggested surgery. Wasn’t my idea.
Oh, okay, he said.
Do you have any questions for me?
“Yes,” I said. “Are you covered by my insurance?”
He was supposed to contact me before this moment. He had not.
“Second question, has anyone ever sneezed during surgery? I’ve been sneezing a lot lately.”
He was stumped.
Finally, I let him know, “I don’t have to go now, but I’ll want to visit the bathroom before surgery.”
He said that I should absolutely relieve myself before the procedure, then left.
The original nurse returns. “Dr. Scully’s running a little late.”
A young woman drops by, the attending nurse. She says that Dr. Scully’s been doing this operation longer than she’s been alive. However, he is still running late.
I tell her, “I don’t have to go now, but I’ll want to visit the bathroom before the surgery.”
She says, “He’ll be here any minute.”
“Should I just go now?”
She walks me to the bathroom and asks, “How many nights are you staying?”
The answer is none, but now I’m starting to wonder if I should be staying the night.
I have diabetic neuropathy, which causes random bouts of insane itchiness in my feet. In the recovery room, my left foot is driving me crazy. I tell the faceless nurse that I haven’t had my last two neuropathy pills (because you don’t take your usual meds before surgery). Then my right foot goes, but only underneath my toenails. Not good. Oh my god, that feels weird.
The faceless recovery nurse checks all around, opening drawers and cabinets in the recovery room until she finds gabapentin pill (or a placebo) in a drawer. I take it and miraculously the itchiness goes away.
At home, it’s time to eat. Rose makes me buttered toast. It’s the greatest food I’ve ever had. Man, I love me some butter, put it on some toast … forget about it. Heaven. She makes me a shake; she put spinach in it and yet it was still the best shake ever. I should mention that I was all hopped up on drugs.
I spend a week napping, icing and grimacing. It felt like someone hit me across my shoulder blades with a canoe paddle. My left trapezius feels torn. My esophagus feels like it has a dent in it, making swallowing difficult and unpleasant. I have to take tiny bites and chew my food into oblivion or it feels like I was swallowing wood chips whole.
I also have a pain in my mouth, my gums in the back left. I guess that intubating tube irritated my gums. After I stopped taking the pain pills, the pain grows exponentially in my teeth, gums, just everywhere in my mouth. It hurts to chew on my left side and I’m now super sensitive to cold. I visit my dentist. She discovered that the intubating tube rubbed a hole in my gum down to the bone, causing pain to resonate throughout my mouth.
My dentist recommends that I see an oral surgeon to remove the now-dead bone and suture the gum. Great.
Other than that, my recovery is going well. So, on June 8, 12 days after surgery, I went on an early morning walk with Rose, put in some hours at work (in my kitchen), then after dinner, we hit the pool. Our new routine. Rose swims, I walk. Sam and Gina join us. It was fun.
When we got back to the house, Rose notices that something is not right with Kirby, our Miniature Schnauzer. His belly is hurting him. I hold him for a long while. I feel like he’s calming down, but his breathing becomes labored and fast. He is whimpering in pain. We take him to the after-hours emergency dog hospital.
We have to sit in the car. The veterinarian examines him and calls us. She gives us impossible options and we have to make the unthinkable decision.
How did we get here?
At 12:45a on June 9, we said goodbye to our dog.
My so-called tolerance for pain had reached its limit.
The next night Rose and I take Rocky on a late-night stroll. Bats are swarming. When we get on the far side of the lake, we see flames on the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of town, the first of 120,000 acres to burn to the ground. Plumes of smoke rising to the skies.
It really started to feel that maybe the world was ending.
Wow, maybe we should take a break. This has gotten pretty ugly.
And I didn’t even mention George Floyd getting murdered in my hometown. Or the relentless bad news on the television, on our phones and in our zoom meetings. Or that, for some reason, certain people felt that the simple act of wearing a mask during a once-in-a-century pandemic was a bridge too far.
King T’Challa, RBG, John Lewis, Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen and my close, personal friend, Sid Hartman, died.
COVID deaths and the election. And even the weather. This summer was the hottest in recorded history for Tucson.
Holy shit. What a shit show this shitty shit sandwich year turned out to be.
Maybe I should get to those bright spots I mentioned in the lead?
The Bright Spot
During COVID, Rose earned a coaching certification from the International Coach Federation, after completing 160 hours of training from the Institute for Integrative Coaching Training and over 100 hours of coaching. Now, in addition to consulting nonprofits, Rose is a certified professional coach, who helps individuals with personal and business development training and planning. She has clients who rely on her to help navigate these turbulent times.
Also, in May, she started going for a walk every morning. In the beginning she’d walk for a half hour and now she routinely puts in five miles. Walking for Rose has been a gateway drug to other activities, like listening to podcasts (Brené Brown and Jon Meacham), journaling, starting a walking club, and posting about her most recent trek around the neighborhood.
I’m so proud of her.
She went months and months without getting a haircut, much to the delight of all of us. Her usual closely cropped ‘do has turned into a giant mop of curls. She did recently get her haircut and it looks adorable.
Birds at the Pool
Rose would start off every walk by heading over to our development’s pool and signing us up for 45-minute slot. We have really nice, little pool and in May the folks at Hill Farm let houses reserve the pool for their family. Every day we would all go to the pool. At first the water was cold, but by the middle of summer, it was so frigging hot out that we would just walk right in. We would mentally regroup as a family in the pool. We brought a ball and played catch. Every day for months. Rose would tread water. I would watch birds. We were all plugged in and engaged with the world, but we also desperately needed to unplug for 45 minutes and play catch in the pool.
The bird watching was ridiculous. Tucson is the sixth-best birding location in the United States, according to Lonely Planet. Hill Farm was recently visited by the Tucson Audubon Society and they counted 150 birds from 34 species in a couple hours. Someone at the development keeps a running list of species spotted in our neighborhood: 110. At the pool we would always see the beautiful and cute Vermillion Flycatchers, all kinds of hummingbirds and hawks. We have two medium-sized hawks who call our neighborhood home. But one day we saw a huge hawk land in a tree near the pool. We watched him eat dinner, tearing a lizard apart bit-by-bit, dropping the head on the sidewalk below. They don’t like eating the heads, I’m told.
One morning Rose woke me up at six in the morning. Two Great Horned Owls found suitable accommodations for their night’s rest in trees just two doors down. I have always wanted to see an owl in the wild. In this case the wild being my neighbor’s tree, but it was awesome to see. As they were getting ready for a little shuteye, our two hawks were squawking at them to get the hell out. But later that afternoon, the owls were still there, sleeping.
One night when we were walking to the pool, we noticed a bunch of birds hovering overhead. “I wonder what kind of birds those are?” I looked up and saw one of the birds directly overhead, wings spread out wide. “Um, those are bats. I just saw the fricking bat signal like we were in f’n Gotham City. (I’m trying not to swear so much.) We head to the pool but we don’t stay our entire time. The bats were swirling over the pool. Gina and I were face-to-face up to our chins in the deep end having a conversation, when I noticed the bats were getting bolder. They thought the pool was empty and started swooping down. We ended our chat when I saw three bats a couple feet away drop in at face level.
That’s when we started reserving the pool at an hour earlier.
We are watching so much TV now … because of the virus. I mean usually we don’t watch TV. We never heard of Netflix until we saw a post about it, recently, on one of those social media platforms … whatever you call them. We’re usually doing our woodworking or downhill skiing, volunteer work, you know, activities, hobbies. We wouldn’t even own a TV if we hadn’t won it in a raffle at that hot yoga conference we went to in Aspen.
Parks & Recreation’s fourth season is perhaps the greatest season in sitcom history. We watched P&R, The Office, Alone, Upload, Tiger King, The Queen’s Gambit, The Boys, Long Way Up, and Ted Lasso. Sam and I are slowly going through Breaking Bad. Rose and I need to finish the final season of Schitt’s Creek, which is awesome. Waiting on season four of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Loved Fleabag and Russian Doll.
Rose and I begin each day by watching the news and then an episode of American Pickers to forget the news.
I recently visited my doctor for my annual checkup. I have visited more doctors’ offices this year more than any other, but this visit was different, special, if you will, because my doctor decided to check in on the condition of my prostate. Now a lot of people like to make light of this serious procedure. Think Chevy Chase singing ‘Moon River’ in the movie, ‘Fletch.’ But all men of a certain age need to get their prostate checked. Prostate cancer is nothing to laugh about. And the test is really no big deal.
She simply asked me to drop my drawers and bend over. No big deal.
For some reason, she quietly quoted King Lear under her breath, “Down from the waist they are Centaurs.”
I said, “Excuse me.”
But before she could explain, she had probed me thusly and the exam was complete.
See, no big deal.
She said, “Your penis is a little enlarged, but that’s completely normal.”
So, let 2021 be the year that you get your prostate checked. Make that appointment today.
Wait a minute, that’s not what she said. She said was that my prostate was completely normal.
But, as she walked out the door, she snickered, “See … it was no big deal.”
“Wait a second, what do you mean by that, HEY!” I yelled. My boxer briefs still around my ankles, ass hanging out that breezy hospital gown.
What was that all about?
Then today I got an email from the doctor’s office. A Patient Satisfaction Survey. The nerve of some people.
I sent the prostate story to my friend Dave O’Neil, aka HORSE. He had some sage advice. “I don’t recommend going beyond the basics of your prostate exam. Getting a semi-chub should not be mentioned.”
And that made me LOL or laugh out loud, as the kids say.
What she really said was, “Your prostate is a little enlarged, but that’s completely normal.” Then on the car ride home, I was replaying the visit in my head and I replaced “prostate” with “penis” and that had me laughing my ass off because I never fully matured beyond middle school.
Oh, by the way, I don’t ordinarily quote Shakespeare, but last night I started reading, “Station Eleven,” a book that begins with an actor literally dying on stage playing King Lear, and he said the line I quoted. I liked the sound of it. When I read the line, for some reason, I immediately thought of my prostate exam.
But since I don’t know King Lear from Norman Lear or a French brassiere, I looked him up. Turns out in the play King Lear is a boorish, buffoon of a leader at the end of his rule of Britain, experiencing a psychic breakdown. He is a narcissistic, spoiled child, who goes mad. Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.
I learned that when Lear says, “Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he is actually referring to women. Lear has serious issues with women.
Interestingly, “Station Eleven” is set during a deadly, worldwide pandemic.
And more interestingly, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine during the bubonic plague.
Did you find time during the pandemic to do something creative or productive to improve yourself or your community? Or were you more like me … just trying to make through another day, ordering ladies’ blouses online.
The Rocky Rule
When Kirby died, I instituted the Rocky Rule. I told the family, whatever Rocky wants, Rocky gets. I think Rocky knows more than he’s letting on. Every night he sits in front of the TV and whimpers and barks, bargaining for more food. And we always give in because he has more stamina than we have patience to put up with racket. Recently, we learned that the whimpering and barking also means, “Makes some room on the couch, I want to stretch out,” and also, “Hey, it’s bedtime, let’s hit it.”
There’s a whole routine: dinner, second dinner, dog ham, water, let me out, let me up, hold me. Gina started this great thing where we serve Rocky water in the palm of our hands directly from our hydro flasks. He’s pampered. Oh, and one night Rocky went and got his leash at eight o’clock at night, walked into the middle of the family room and said, “One of you dummies is taking me for a walk and I mean right now.” I took him because whatever Rocky wants Rocky gets.
We used to give Kirby his nightly pill wrapped in some ham. And because it’s impossible to give one dog ham and not the other, Rocky got used to eating ham every night too. We started calling the ham, ‘dog ham,’ after the following conversation. Rose was kindly making me a sandwich with ham. And I shouted to her in the kitchen from the comfort of the family room couch. “You’re not using that ham we feed the dogs, are you? I don’t want any dog ham.” So, anyways, Rocky still calls for and gets his nightly dog ham.
Rocky will turn 14 this May, the Good Lord willing. I’ll never forget bringing home those two puppies. I could carry both of them in one hand. Kirby was the only salt-and-pepper in the mix and was the runt of the litter. Rocky was the cutest of the black-and-silver pups. I channeled baseball legend Ernie Banks and said, “Let’s get two!”
Best decision ever.
Rocky could bully Kirby a little bit because he was a good size bigger, so when they started tearing around the house as puppies, I became the equalizer. Whenever Kirby got cornered, I’d get on all fours and yell, “Get in the cave, Kirby, get in the cave!” And he’d come running and hide underneath me, stilling playing, still fighting back, but now Rocky couldn’t get to him so easy. Sometimes he’d literally dive to get into the cave, like he was sliding into second base.
Every night when I’d get home from work, I’d lie on the ground and see the dogs. Kirby would give me a couple kisses and then take his spot, guarding me, sitting by my head. Rocky would linger with the kisses. It was almost too familiar. He would slobber on my face like I was wearing bacon lipstick. So, I taught him a special trick, I called “light kisses.” I’d ask Rocky for light kisses and then he’d delicately give me tiny, quick, little kisses. Um, it was still uncomfortably intimate, considering that he’s, you know, a dog.
Every morning, the dogs would jump in our bed. Rocky would lay next to Rose and Kirby would curl up right next to my face. After a while, every morning, Kirby would hop over me like a rabbit and sit to my left, facing the headboard. He would sit there while I scratched him. Once he had felt that I had scratched him long enough, he would turn around, put his butt near my face and lie right next to me, until it was time for breakfast.
Sometimes Rocky would beat Kirby to the bed in the morning and take Kirby’s spot next to me. I’d have to arch my back until there was a couple of inches between me and Rocky, so Kirby could somehow wedge himself into place.
Kirby was my dog. My little buddy.
On more than one occasion, floating on my back in that pool at Hill Farm, I’ve seen Kirby in the clouds.
On more than one occasion, he’s been in my dreams.
He was a good dog.
Man, that circle of life shit can really get you down and it’s no joke. 450,000 families lost more than their dogs this year. They know that COVID is no joke, better than those who called it a hoax. Millions have lost their jobs or businesses. It’s been a shitty, shitty year.
It’s important to keep your head up and keep moving forward.
Be kind to yourself and others and keep moving forward.
That’s how winning is done.
One day after Kirby had passed I was heading over to the pool. I was near the gate when a woman walked by with two dogs on leashes. The bushy, blonde dog kept walking a straight line, but the little salt-and-pepper dog veered straight to me. Little Max couldn’t wait to get to me, he kissed my hands and then jumped up and kissed my face.
Nine-month-old Miniature Schnauzer puppy.
He just met me and he loved me.
That’s it. That’s the end of the letter. I stole their dog.
Happy President’s Day!
Charlie | Rose | Carli | Gina | Sam | #BLM | Rocky
© Snyder Family Holiday Letter 2021
This is Max. Not actually our dog. But we get to visit him every once in a while.