I decided to get a nexus device because they are very well supported here on XDA and the general consensus is they are nearly impossible to hard brick barring a hardware issue or the user doing something really really dumb
After unboxing the device I put it on charge while making some final decisions on what direction I wanted to go with the "rebuild". As you will see some of these decisions will have cascading effects...
I settled on cleanrom 2.6 and the elementalx kernel, I also decided I wanted to use CWM (non touch) recovery instead of TWRP because I'm familiar with it and hoped that I would not spend enough time to justify having a gui.( and ... to be honest I am not a fan of TWRPs gui ).
So now that I have made my decisions for better or for worse it is time to proceed. I powered on and configured the device for the first time. Since I wasn't paying attention Google started downloading all my apps from Play. This was not a big deal but folks on a data plan might want to make sure they read the screens and decide not to restore their apps. The option for OTA upgrade was available from jellybean to kitkat, so I went ahead and proceeded with the OTA. In retrospect it was a waste of time because you can download the stock images and reflash them later if you want.
ADB and FASTBOOT were already on my Debian desktop and working properly so I went ahead and unlocked the bootloader, then rebooted and flashed CWM. I them installed supersu from CWM. (I left out the part about using adb to push the files but you get the picture...) So far so good except there was a fatal flaw in my plan. Cleanrom and ElementalX both use aroma installer, which doesn't work on CWM. So as I was doinking around In CWMs advanced options looking for a slim possibility of salvaging the situation I managed to end up in the key test application. The problem here being that since the device doesn't have a back button there was no way to get out of they key test. No worries though I simply connected the USB cable fired up adb and did "adb reboot". A few minutes later I had downloaded and installed TWRP and was ready to pick up where I left off.
Here is a note for folks doing this for the first time, read the instructions and erratta for your new kernel and ROM carefully before you proceed so that you avoid time consuming issues. By reading up a little before I started the project I knew that the ROM and kernel were compatible and work well together. I also knew that I would need to install the ROM first, then the kernel, because I I installed the Kernel first I would have to re-install it after flashing the ROM. No point in doing it twice, right?
SO I fired up TWRP and did a factory reset in preparation for flashing the ROM. So far so good. Cleanrom installed, but AROMA did not ask for my installation options. Fearing something was wrong, I clean flashed (wipe first then flash) the ROM 2 more times with the same result. After the third flash I said wth, as long as the ROM flashed and works I can always change software on my own. So a quick reboot and test drive of the device confirmed the ROM was installed and there appeared to be no glaring issues, so I went back to recovery and flashed the kernel. BTW I did check the md5sums and verified that the files were correct and not corrupted.
I know there is an option to flash more than one update with TWRP but since the install did not occur the way I expected I chose to install the ROM and kernel separately, I'm sure some more experienced members of XDA will agree with this decision and others will say that "it's nexus, go ahead and flash the ROM and kernel at the same time, you can't break it
Anyhow the kernel installation went fine and AROMA prompted me as expected before installing. Note to newbies like me, reading the thread really helps, Knowing exactly how you want to configure your kernel before you install it will save you hassles down the line. Expect the first boot to take a little extra time.
In nutshell, there really is no reason to be afraid of installing a custom kernel on your Nexus device. Sure the possibility is there for you to screw things up, but unless you do something very drastically wrong you wont brick the device, trust me -- If I can do it you can do it. Just think ahead a little and prepare yourself by downloading the files you need and maybe even writing yourself an outline of the steps. I'm sure that I could do this again and again now without referring to notes or tutorials, but having them readily available for guidance and reference was comforting.
I could continue with the saga of getting Debian to recognize the tablet in MTP mode but this post has already gone long and that is a rite of passage...