U.S. Border Patrol
Inspection North of Laredo
Austin, Texas, USA
January 22, 2012

Nena is the only person I still keep up with from a long-past year I jokingly dub my "dark period".

This was the year immediately before I began graduate school, a year I spent working at a large interstate bank. It wasn't the monotony of the routine I couldn't bear so much as the utterly soul-sapping nature of existence there.

Physically, I was never healthier than that year. I rode my bike to and from work every day, about an hour-and-a-half total ride. I went running regularly as well--even particpating in a short 10K fun-run. I ate neither meat nor fish--only vegetarian food that year.

I can't guess what my overall state would have been if I han't paid such attention to my physical well-being that year. My routine at the bank was utterly fatiguing mentally and emotionally.

Sheldon and Nena Play Risk
The work wasn't hard. In fact, much of what I found draining was that the job was so simplistic. I worked in the Adjustments Department. Everything there centered around retrieval of records, usually owing to some dispute. For instance, a customer might have written a check for $20 but had $200 deducted from his balance. Sometimes complete years of transactions for certain accounts were subpoenaed for legal cases.

The Adjustments Department housed a half-dozen large machines to read microfilm images of the checks the bank processed. Popping a microfilm reel into one of these allowed an image of the precise check to be called up on a screen to be printed off and dispatched to whichever branch required it. That was essentially the entire job. There was nothing engaging about the task whatsoever.

The whole department was in a windowless wing of a plain, unmarked building. Breaks and lunch were brief. Both were scheduled in shifts (I got the early, undesirable ones) beginning and ending at the same times every day.

Texas Capitol Dome
I realized that I had to quit when I found myself going home every evening and immediately falling asleep with the uneasy thought that it would be my only escape from dreariness until the next morning.

Co-workers were generally nice people supporting families. But few seemed to have interest in moving on and doing anything other than working at this bank. It wasn't until Nena came along that I felt any kindred spirit in the office.

Nena and I were about the same age. Nena was also on her way back to school. Nena even rode her bike to work every day as well.

Thankfully, neither of us spent quite an entire year at that job. We retained contact over the years since--which was a far more deliberate decision back in the pre-Facebook era. Not many years after we had each quit the bank she moved from Seattle back to her hometown of Austin where she met and married Sheldon then settled down to live happily ever after.

So, stopping here in Austin was purely a social call. On my way up out of Mexico I figured I was proximate enough so decided to say "hi" to Nena and Sheldon. I've seen them both here on previous visits. It's nice to check in and laugh at how we've moved on and are in such better places than back when every day was spent repeating the same mind-numbing task for hours under nothing but fluorescent lights.

Texas Capitol Doorhinge
They're both fun people. For years, Sheldon has fronted a local Industrial band for whose performances he incorporates a six-foot tall puppet "singing along" on-stage. Nena finished library school and found a job far better than the one we worked at the bank long ago. (Sheldon also has a day job at the same corporation in a different department.) The two seem really happy.

Most of my time in Austin has been spent just hanging out around town with them and catching up. My first afternoon we found good barbecue at one of many food trailers that have recently sprouted up along Austin's streets. Another night, Sheldon was keen to play Risk. It was my first time playing. Despite the multitude of games my siblings and I played over the years, Risk was the one we never had in our house. Nena and Sheldon do have an electronic version they often play on their Wii, but they decided to be authentic and pick up a physical set with gameboard and pieces for my first time playing. I slowly got trounced into the night.

Yesterday, I borrowed Sheldon's bike to spin around town and take in the sights. Seeing the capitol dome reminded me of my first time visiting this city many years ago. On that trip, Nena was playing tour guide, showing me around town. We had gone to the capitol. Upon leaving, we looked back up and contemplated which country was represented by each of the shields above the main entrance. We knew that they were the "Six Flags Over Texas." Though, even with a native Texan among the two of us, it took us some time to figure out all the different nations this territory has been a part of over the past two-hundred years.

Thanks for hosting, Sheldon and Nena. Let's do it again soon. Come see me in Canada.

Quick Quiz: can you name all "Six Flags Over Texas?"