I am not, ordinarily, all that good at remembering birthdays. Once I've been told, I can usually recollect the month (Tufty was born sometime this month, for example) but the exact dates elude me. However, since Sir Level Head had put up an entry on it, when March rolled around this year, it wasn't too hard to poke through his journal and find the date. So I did -- it was April 9 -- and then I thought: "Well, I should do something for him; this is one of those milestone birthdays that should not be neglected. But what?"
April 9th was a Friday, and Level Head had mentioned in a prior conversation that his hometown airport was a hub. This was an important detail, because it made him much closer than I'd originally realized. I checked some flight schedules, and tickets were available for not much more than it costs to visit Kage and Sophrani, and for a shorter overall travel time (even though Level Head lives, in miles, about twice as far away.)
The thought flickered through my mind: "What if I surprised him by showing up for his birthday?" And I just as quickly discarded it. A surprise visit wouldn't work; he might have plans for that weekend, and I wouldn't want to impose, and there was no way of knowing what the case would be, and ....
Wait. His wife, lady_anne, and I have corresponded a bit, and she knew his schedule, naturally, as well as he did. And was in a position to get it cleared for a weekend, if the occassion warranted. Moreover, both Lady Anne and Level Head have, in the past, offered me a standing invitation, so I did not feel as though I was inviting myself.
Nerving myself up, I put together an itinerary (not yet buying tickets) that would arrive shortly before 5PM local time, and made sure I could get off work early that Friday. Then I wrote to Lady Anne, asking what she thought of the idea. She loved it. Perhaps two days after the plan first sprang into my brain, I'd bought tickets.
Of course, I wanted to bring a present. It wouldn't be right to go all that way to a birthday party and not bring a present. Arguably, showing up as a surprise guest could be said to be a present, but I still wanted to get him seomthing.
Level Head is something of a webcomic enthusiast, and has written in the past about four of his favorite characters, the "Noble Webcomic Females". For the anniversary of his business, I'd done a picture of one of them, Mopsy, with my character Madden, and his business's logo. I had a notion of doing all four ladies for his birthday, but I couldn't think of a good composition for the image. As the date drew nearer, I finally hit on an idea: I'd seen a picture of Level Head's desk at work. I could arrange the ladies around that, and put Level Head himself into the picture.
This was on the Saturday before his birthday. I sketched the image that evening (while on the phone with Level Head, who was none the wiser for his participation in this endeavor). I scanned it in, and Lut, looking over my shoulder at the job I'd done sketching the dinosaur-dragon cross that Level Head uses for his icon, commented, "Maybe you should do a picture of the man instead. You've got his photograph.
I did -- he was even sitting at the desk in the picture I had of the desk. And I'd seen a couple other pictures of him, none very high-quality, and none in the pose that I wanted to do. I hemmed and hawed over that idea, then asked Lady Anne if she could find a profile shot of him for me to try.
Sunday, Lut and I went out looking for a photograph developing shop that would be able to print a suitably high-quality and large-size version of the image. I had them print a few test images I'd done of other subjects, including the Mopsy-Madden image. This let me determine that a 10x15" image at 300 dpi would reproduce reasonably well, and that I didn't need to go up to 600 dpi. This was good, because my computer lags rather badly if I'm working with an image that large. (The picture I did of Tiffany was about that size, and a lot of common operations took a LONG time to execute on it.
I spent Sunday evening, and the following three nights, in an art fugue, doing little else besides working on The Picture. I wanted to finish it Tuesday night, so that I could take it to the print shop Wednesday and pick it up Thursday. (They did one-hour processing on glossy prints, but next-day on matte, which was what I wanted.) Finishing it Tuesday was Not Happening. I hadn't even decided whether I wanted to do Level Head as avatar or human by Tuesday, though I'd mostly finished the rest of the image. I showed Lady Anne my sketch of him based on the photo she'd sent, and she offered her preference for that version. So I went with it.
I felt a little odd, working from a photograph of someone I've never seen in person. It's much more difficult, for me, to try to capture the look of a person from a single photo. But I took heart from Lady Anne's approval and persevered. Wednesday night I finished it. Thursday, Lut took it to the shop, and Friday morning, Lut picked it up before picking me up from work (and adding last-minute items to my bags. Lut was an absolute saint through this whole process, attending to all kinds of details for me and generally being amazingly supportive.)
Ironically, I corresponded and spoke with Level Head rather less this week than I usually did, because so much of the answer to a common question like "so, what have you been up to?" was "things I can't tell you." Rather than risk giving my plan away -- and because I didn't have the much time left over anyway -- I steered clear of him entirely. (Well, he'd soon be seeing a lot more of me anyway.)
Wednesday evening, I noticed that lady_anne had put up a note on her journal about his birthday coming up. It struck me that, if I said nothing whatsoever to him on Friday morning, level_head was likely to suspect I was up to something. So, to ally his suspicions, I did a quick sketch inspired by a comment from Lady Anne ("Give him a 'Hippo birdie two ewes' if you get a chance") and emailed that Friday morning.
Then it was off to work, then the airport. Lady Anne picked me up, and we had a fun scramble picking up makovette; Lady Anne did not have his cell phone, so she called Level Head to have him call Mako, while I sat very quietly in the car. We zipped over to her sister's house so I would have a chance to change. (Poor Makovette had some last-minute troubles and his bag wound up neatly packed on the front seat of his truck while he got on the plane.) Then off to the restaurant, zipping through very little traffic, to arrive -- remarkably! -- almost before anyone else. (16 people, in total, attended.)
The guest of honor arrived perhaps fifteen minutes later. We were seated on the patio in front of the restaurant, and Lady Anne and MAko spotted him pulling up. "Quick, hide her!" Lady Anne said. I crouched down, feeling nervous and silly, while they positioned themselves to screen me from view. A few moments later, he went into the restaurant, and I stood up behind Mako. Then Level Head stepped through the doors onto the patio, and could see me quite plainly.
At first, I thought something must have given us away, after all, because he did not look surprised. Pleased to see me, but not surprised. Lady Anne positioned us with him at the center of the table, me on his left, and her on his right. Dinner began, and we ate and chatted with the other guests (I did not have a chance to talk to all of them, but they all seemed like a terrific collection of folks. Level Head introduced me to them as "a writer" which left me in the awkward position of having to explain that, yes, I wrote, but I was a long way from being a published author. Still, it was awfully sweet of him). I have talked to Level Head a fair number of times on the phone, and I knew he was neither shy nor quiet. But after we'd been sitting for forty minutes or so, I'd noticed that he wasn't talking much -- and then I realized that he'd not only been surprised to see me, but he was still surprised.
Srangely, so was I.
After so long in the planning, I still cannot quite believe that it all happened, and here I am writing this in his house, while he and his wife and Mako are all still asleep. Yesterday, Level_head was up when I was, which was quite a treat for me, given that I was awake at 4:30AM. I guess he's sleeping in today; why, it's nearly 7AM now. :) Works out all right; when else would I get to write this?
Level Head really enjoyed the picture, which is why I'd done it. It's hard for me to give art as a gift. I am always a little ashamed of even my best works, and I worry what people will think of them. But Level Head has been very supportive of all my creative endeavors. Being confident that he'd like it made it a great deal easier to do.
He and Lady Anne have both been wonderful hosts. Lady Anne volunteered, before I even packed, to provide me with a spare robe of hers, which is an especially nice touch for me because (a) I love lounging around in a robe and (b) since she lent it to me, I can hardly feel out of place wearing it rather than getting dressed promptly on rising. At the restaurant, she brought in a shawl for me in case I got cold sitting on the patio. Amazingly thoughtful.
Yesterday, the four of us lazed about the house and the hot tub (mmm. hot tub) with occasional breaks for delightful meals prepared by Lady Anne (there's leftover garlic tortelini in the fridge which may not still be there when my hosts wake up) and a screening of "Joe's Apartment", an exceedingly silly film which I'd wanted to see ever since I first heard about it. ("I think they're kinda sweet.")
They have a gorgeous house, adn the grounds are spectacular. Their backyard falls off into a ravine. In fact, a few years ago, an alarming part of it quite literally fell into the ravine. O.O If they lost much more, they'd've needed a new house, too.
But the ravine is splendid to look at. There's a staircase leading partway down the slope, with a drainage ditch running along the side a bit of the way down, and then more stairs leading to a wooden walkway and a short sort of pier, just hanging over space. The slope is completely overgrown, mostly by morning glories, I think Level Head said. We walked down to the pier -- very carefully, as the lower stairs were concealed by leafy vines -- or, in a few cases, leafy vines concealed the absence of missing steps. The view is terrific. There are houses all around, but there's enough property aroudn each one, with trees and the angle of the slopes enough to make you feel like you're very secluded out here.
Today, on the way to the airport, we'll be stopping by both Level Head's current offices, and the one he's moving to. So I'll get to see his desk in person, and the coral reef tank that I've heard so much about. I'm really looking forward to that.
Not looking forward, quite so much, to going home. But I do miss Lut rather a lot. It'll be very nice to be back with him.
But I do wish someone would hurry up an invent personal teleporters, so that I could see all my far-distant friends more often. It's been a wonderful weekend. I'm very glad I did the picture for Level Head. I really can't count my coming out as a gift to him. I think I am enjoying my visit even more than he is.
But it was a good surprise. He told me afterwards that he didn't suspect a thing. :)