Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why Skeletons Don't Have Kids...

Here is a small sample of life in our car. It was written a few years ago, when our eldest was 8, but you get the general idea. You won't get the full effect unless you read the parts aloud -- very loud -- and have a Greek chorus of gigglers accompanying you:

Dad: What a great dinner out at our neighborhood family restaurant.

Mom: Yes, and such amusing holiday themed activity books for the kids!

Eldest daughter, age 8: Hey! It's got jokes in it! "Where do elves keep their money?"

Mom: In a snow bank.

Eldest: Ha, ha! That's right!

Older Brother, age 5: Mommy! How did you know?

Little Brother, age 3: Knock, knock!

Little Princess, age 2: (shrieks with laughter)

Mom: I'm older than you, I know things.

Eldest: "What do snowmen eat for breakfast?"

Little Bro: Knock, Knock!

Dad: Cereal flakes?

Elder Bro: Who's there?

Princess: Eeeeeeeee!!

Eldest: That's right, dad! Gee, you guys are smart!

Mom: Enjoy that while she still says it.

Dad: No kidding! I like people who are easily impressed with me.

Little Bro: KNOCK, KNOCK!!!

Elder Bro: Somebody ask him 'who's there'!

Mom: Who's there, honey?

Little Bro: Uh.... POOP! Ha ha ha ha ha...

Princess: Poop! Aieeeeeee!

Dad: Oy...

Elder Bro: Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?

Eldest: Hey, that's not on there... they're supposed to be Christmas jokes!

Dad: Why didn't the skeleton cross the road, Schmoo?

Eldest: But that's a Halloween joke! It's Christmas!

Elder Bro: Because he had no guts!

Princess: Poopy guts! Ha ha ha ha....

Little Bro: Knock, knock!

Mom: Oh, nice.

Eldest: Why did the elephant stand on the marshmallow?

Dad: Huh?

Little Bro: KNOCK KNOCK!

Dad: Oh, God....

Mom: Why did the elephant stand on the marshmallow, darlin'?

Elder Bro: Who's there?

Little Bro: KNOCK KNOCK!

Dad: "Who's there?" already!

Princess: Knock, knock!

Eldest: So he wouldn't fall in the cocoa!


Elder Bro: Cocoa? Ohhh.... I get it! Ha ha ha!

Little Bro: Knock, knock!

Mom: *sigh* Who's there?

Little Bro: Cocoa

Mom & Dad: Cocoa who?


Little Bro: Uh... POOPY CHOCOLATE!! (pronounced "ch-LOCK-it")

Unison: HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!

Dad: Good grief...

Mom: Oh, good... we're home...

Princess: (chanting) Poopy, poopy, chocolate, chocolate...

Mom (to Dad): Is this really our life?

Dad: I'm afraid so.

Mom: Can we complain to somebody?

Dad: No one would believe us.

Little Bro: Uh... POOPY CHOCOLATE!!

Mom & Dad: ENOUGH!!

Answer to the subject line: Because they have no guts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chilly: The Elf Who Could Not Love

Everyone who knows about Christmas knows that Santa Claus runs a workshop at the North Pole, where all of the toys for all of the good little boys and girls in the world are made by cheerful elves. But not all of the elves are cheerful. There is one elf, named Chilly, who doesn't know how to love.

Chilly used to try to make toys like the other elves, but they never turned out quite right. When the other elves made dolls, they made pretty dolls with curly, bouncy hair of chestnut, ebony, or spun gold; with rosy, apple-round cheeks; with bright white, straight teeth; and with shining eyes of blue, brown or deep sea green. When Chilly made dolls, they had straight, spiky hair; pale, grey cheeks; muddy eyes; and a mouth that was a thin, crooked line.

When the other elves made toy horses, they had flowing manes and tails, mighty flanks, and saddles and bridles woven with gold and silver. Their race cars had bright paint and cool graphics. Their soldiers had sharp uniforms and impressive tanks and jeeps. Their trumpets and xylophones knew all the best songs, their Play-dough never dried out, and their yo-yo's always came back.

When Chilly made toy horses, they had knobby knees and yellow teeth, and their bridles were twists of twine. His race cars had smeary paint and crooked decals. His soldiers were missing boots, and their tanks and jeeps had bent cannons and dented radiators. His saxophones honked tunelessly, his Play-dough was a solid, brown blob of rock, and his yo-yo's always fell off their strings.

Santa shook his head sadly when he saw Chilly's toys, and said, "I can't give those toys to the good little boys and girls! Maybe we can find something else that Chilly can make." Chilly just shrugged.

The other elves tried to come up with a toy that Chilly could make, but his basketballs all came out flat, and his roller skates never had the right number of wheels. One elf even had the brilliant idea to have Chilly make all of the monster toys for kids that liked scary things, but Chilly's monsters didn't turn out right either: they either didn't have enough teeth, or he put flowers on them instead of tentacles. Poor Chilly just couldn't LOVE enough to make the kinds of toys that Santa could use.

But Santa Claus had other problems to worry about.

Every year, there were more and more children in the world. Santa had lots of helpers, but he was the only one who could deliver the toys on Christmas Eve, and he was starting to have trouble keeping up. He and his eight tiny reindeer flew from sunset in Japan until sunrise in Hawaii, and still just barely had time to visit every single house with children in it!

Finally, one year, Santa had an idea that he thought would save him some time. As you know, Santa takes presents to all of the good boys and girls, but he also takes a lump of coal for all of the naughty boys and girls in the world.

"If I stop taking all of that coal to all of the naughty children, I will have more time to visit the good children!" said Santa Claus. So, that's just what he did.

One year, instead of waking up on Christmas morning to find a lump of coal in their stockings (or under their pillow, if they were really naughty), all of the naughty children found nothing at all. And when they didn't get anything at all, they thought that Santa didn't care about them, so instead of trying to be good the next year, they started behaving even more badly than they had the year before. Some of them were so naughty that they turned the good boys and girls into naughty children, too!

When Santa saw what was happening, he grew very sad. "I will have to start delivering coal again, or I'll run out of good children altogether!" he said. "But how will I ever find the time to lug all of that awful coal AND my wonderful presents around the whole world in one night? I need one of my helpers to come along and deliver it for me." But all of Santa's helpers were too cheerful and kind to ever do something as mean as dropping coal into children's' stockings! How could he ask them to do such a stern thing, when they all had so much love?

Just then, an elf went by with a box full of toys that Chilly had made – a jack-in-the-box without a handle, a pair of bunny slippers with no ears, and a little red wagon with the wheels on the inside – bound for the trash pile. Santa had an idea. He sent for Chilly, and told him to meet him at the reindeer barn. When Chilly got there, Santa greeted him with a "Ho, ho, ho!" and told him, "I've found the perfect job for you, Chilly!"

That Christmas Eve, when Santa Claus got into his magic sleigh with all of the wonderful toys that the elves had made, Chilly climbed into a sleigh, too. Chilly's sleigh had a huge burlap sack filled with coal. And his reindeer was a grumpy old mule deer with one antler. And his sleigh had a bent runner that made it pull to the right. And Chilly went around the whole world with Santa that night, from sunset in Japan to sunrise in Hawaii, delivering coal to all the naughty boys and girls in the world.

Santa was thrilled to have a helper. Chilly was as happy as an elf who cannot love can be. Most important, the naughty children knew that Santa still thought about them, and they started trying to behave properly again.

So, if you get some nice presents this year, you can thank Santa, and pat yourself on the back for being so good all year long. But if you get a lump of coal, you should start doing your homework and picking up your room; and thank Chilly, the elf who could not love for reminding you!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

When Things Got Serious

reposting in honor of Pearl Harbor Day

Bobby had enlisted in the Army in his hometown of Winter Park, Florida.

He did well in training, and ended up applying for a special school, hoping to become a pilot. The Army being the Army, he had to agree to taking a bunch of tests and special classes to qualify, and there was a pretty good chance he wouldn't be selected for pilot school... but he decided to go for it.

The specialty training include aircraft engine mechanic courses at Luke Field, located southwest of Phoenix, Arizona. The class was difficult, but Bobby was smart, and he didn't spend a lot of time and energy getting wasted after hours and on weekends, like some of his friends did. He preferred spending time at a church he had found. A church that hosted "mixers" on Friday and Saturday nights. Church mixers that had girls at them.

That is where he met Nancy.

Bobby and Nancy went out a few times, usually with Nancy's best friend -- whose name was Bobbe! -- and one of her boyfriends. Nancy was only 17, but Bob (it was too confusing having two "Bobbies") had also met her parents at the church, and they trusted him. Bob had even been to their house for Sunday dinner a few times.

Things were going just swell (his words, not mine). Bob and Nancy liked each other quite a lot, but she was still in high school. And being in training for the Army, he didn't know for sure where he would end up next. It was technically peacetime, but the Army was building up. There was talk of the trouble across the Atlantic, even though most Americans thought it was best to stay out of it.

They decided not to worry about it, and to take their time. It was a mature decision. And then Bob was selected for a special class he in California. He would be back after a few weeks, but maybe this meant he would get to learn to fly! So, he said goodbye to Nancy and promised to write to her often.

Not long after that, America was attacked, and everything changed.

There was confusion; there was fear. There were a lot of things happening all at once. Nancy's letters to Bob were frantic; she didn't know where he was, or if the rumors were true that California was next. She hadn't heard from her brother, a Technical Sergeant stationed in the Philippines. All she knew was that she loved Bob, missed him fiercely, and wanted him to be back safe with her.

By the time Bob managed to get a letter through, things had calmed somewhat. People at least knew the basics: the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor; the U.S. had declared war. The West Coast was not under attack. Nancy's brother, Richard, was safe for the time being, though he would be wounded in a sniper attack and end up the war as a guard at the POW camp in Papago, AZ.

Bob had also been turned down for officer training and pilot school. But this would turn out to be good news, because, as a high-scoring mechanic, Bob would spend the rest of the war at Luke Field, maintaining the trainers for the pilots of the P-38's.

And so, on the 28th of June, 1942, Bob and Nancy were married.

You could argue that without December 7, 1941, they might not have decided to wed. It's possible that without the shock of war, and the fear of losing each other, they might have drifted away and only been pen pals. But some things are meant to happen. After all, Bob did eventually learn to fly.

But that's another story altogether...

Friday, November 21, 2008

38 Lines About 19 Years

What a week for rediscovering old friends and new acquaintances. So many have asked for an overview, I felt I should post something that would serve as a standing "what I've been up to, more or less" to help people catch up. And when I sat down and shook the keyboard, this is what fell out. I don't claim this is a "good" poem, but poem it is.

(Apologies to The Nails.)

Graduation came and went
One more Pomp & Circumstance night

College life is just like High School
But with ashtrays in the halls

Found a roomie and apartment
Found out that my folks were right

Lost the girlfriend, job, and car
And shed all my slacker pals

Finally gave in, joined the Air Force
(Anywhere but Osan, please)

Wasted year on Han-guk-mal-oh
But at least I found a wife

Rocked out, and got switched to Russkie
Started one new little life

Half a year in roach-filled Texas
Then the move to Baltimore

Orders came for Merry England
Just in time, 'cause we were bored

Six weeks there is really awesome
We were there for three long years

Had two boys (TV's expensive)
They're our favorite souvenirs

Back to Phoenix, winning ball team!
But no jobs, then the Attacks.

Unemployed, again expecting
Maryland said "Come on back"

Worked our tails off (60 hour weeks!)
Clawing back toward "normalcy"

Dad has two jobs, Mom has four
But we're breathing, finally

Bought a house out in the county
Visit Phoenix, Christmas time

Two girls, two boys, and a dog, now
No more kids (we drew the line!)

Kids are older, we're all safer
(Kater joined the TSA)

This year brought a lot of changes
Good or bad, it's hard to say

Now we're looking forward, Hopeful
(This Space Intentionally Left Blank)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Politically Incorrect (Doesn't Cover It)

Before you start reading this, you need some background:

1) I used to be a much bigger jerk than I am today. (I will give you a moment to collect yourself after such a shocking statement.)

2) When I joined the US Air Force in 1994, they tried to teach me Korean. My immune system rejected it. No one was pleased with the result.

3) What you are about to read should be interpreted as an "attack" and a "slur" ONLY on the specific people mentioned by pseudonym in this post - Do NOT presume that I harbor any racist grudges or hatred against any group of people.

In other words, if you are Korean, or of Asian origin, this is not meant to offend you; it is meant to illustrate how a twenty-something jerk dealt with self-absorbed teachers in an oppressive and stressful environment.

Okay, enough background.

I think the statute of limitations for having a bad attitude has run out by now; I hope so, because I have found evidence of my bad attitude. If I recall correctly, our teacher, Donny Kim, found us a video on Korean culture one day (in Korean, of course, so I understood none of it) and asked us to take notes as we watched it.

Here are my notes.

Report on Korean Culture
While it may seem that Koreans borrowed art and customs from China and Japan, and borrowed their music from an African tribe which communicates solely through farts and tap dancing, Koreans do have some practices which are solely their own.

For example, on some holidays they try to coax dead relatives out of their burial mounds with plates of rotten cabbage. They have also been known to dress like fags and dance around graveyards, or climb to the tops of mountains to wave.

When they want to celebrate, they get drunk and tie streamers to their heads and dash about the town beating pots and pans. Sometimes people are accidentally killed by the streamers, which gives those who were annoyed by the celebration cause to celebrate in a like manner, which sometimes leads to a month-long stretch of perpetual noise and accidental streamer-decapitation.

Koreans have a world-wide reputation for their dog-training technique; if only those damned dogs would learn!

So, while it would seem at first that Korea has nothing to offer to world culture, this turns out to be a severe understatement.

I share this insightful glimpse into my psyche for one reason, and one reason alone: so that you will understand how innocuous the next part of the story is, by comparison. You see, as horrible as that little essay might be, I had the decency to keep it mostly to myself (though I probably made my classmate/neighbor read it). When it came time to put together a little three-sentence assignment for Mr. Kim, however, I did indulge in a bit of offensiveness.

The assignment was to write 3 sentences in Korean about our hometown. My hometown is Phoenix, so I tried to come up with 3 quick sentences made up of words that I knew. There weren't a lot. "Phoenix is big." One down. "Phoenix is hot." On a roll! Now what? I thought for a long time, but nothing really came to mind. Then, a flash of genius: "I love Phoenix because there are no Koreans there. (Just kidding.)" Yes, I looked up "Just kidding", and put that in there, too.

In retrospect, it wasn't a really good move.

Donny Kim dragged me into his "office", which was separated from the classroom by a thin, fabric wall, and proceeded to rip me a new one. "This is racist stuff, you know? You could be prosecuted for this! I don't know if you're trying to be funny, but you gotta be a level 2 at least before you try humor! Like me, I gotta level 2 in English, and that's why I write a pilot for a sitcom. (Have I let you read it? It's funny... about a used car lot, 'cause, you know, they get different people in every day, and some of them are probably crazy.) But if I see this kind of racist stuff go on, you will get in big trouble. Now go back to class!"

Chastised, chagrined, I crept meekly back to my seat. I felt two inches tall, and sat staring intently at the tip of my pencil until Mr. Kim came back into the room to continue our lesson.

"Today, I write a Korean sentence on the board, and you try to figure it out from context." He scribbled something up there, and we puzzled over it, feverishly flipping through our dictionaries. The only word I could make out looked like "hug-in", which the dictionary defined as "a Negro; a darkie; a coon..." I sat back, put down my pencil, and waited silently for one of our three "hug-in" students to notice.

When they did, the class had a very calm, rational discussion about how the word was really a technical term, on a par with "African-American" or "person of color". Once the tensions were allayed, someone thought to ask what the rest of the sentence meant.

"Oh, it say, 'Black people are lousy tippers.'" The temperature dropped 10 degrees. "What, that not racist! That true! You go into restaurant, they eat and eat, but don't leave anything on table. It just observation!"

Needless to say, I was never written up. But I saved those notes in my memento's box.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

The cars start showing up at camp site 254 around noon. Trucks and vans packed to overflowing with gear: tents, cots, sleeping bags, grills, tables, propane bottles, sacks of food, and various implements designed for making an October weekend outdoors tolerable to American kids (and adults) spoiled by decades of central heating and Big Screen television.

There is room for about half a dozen cars to unload at a time, and then they need to be moved to "official" parking areas. Our hero arrives and finds out where his family's tent will go, then presses his four children into toting things from the van. His oldest is a Girl Scout, and she's probably got more camping experience than he does, so he lets her help as much as she is willing. They get the tent up, and toss in all the sleeping gear, then he drives up the hill and parks.

On the way back to site 254, he crosses a field where the monthly battlefield re-enactments of the famous Battle take place. It's about 3/4 acre of well-kept grass bordered on two sides by deceptively makeshift pole fences and strategically place piles of boulders. In the summer of 1863, he supposes, it wasn't likely this tidy. In the summer of 1863, there would have been Union (or Confederate) troops hiding out of sight in those boulders, waiting for a Confederate (or Union) unit to walk into their line of fire so they could blast them into oblivion. In autumn of 2008, there are children clambering noisily from boulder to boulder, waving stick-rifles (and a few log-bazookas) and making Star Wars sound effects as they blast their playmates into imaginary oblivion.

Cars continue to arrive, tents are erected, fires are started, food is prepared. Temperatures drop and people - some old friends, some strangers - begin huddling around, sharing their resources and stories. After two days, everyone will be equally covered in camp smoke and dirt, and the mood will begin to wane from warm eagerness into tired coldness, but this first night is marked by laughter and stories.

Several of the dads are well-read on the American Civil War, and try to impress the children with tales of the Battle, and what it meant. But to the children they aren't adventure stories as much as they are lists of odd names and ancient dates. They listen while they eat, but it is obvious they want to edge away, until someone mentions ghosts.

"You know, there's a story you don't often hear about the glowing Ghost of Nectar," he says. "Before the big Battle, this area was kind of 'up for grabs', and there was a small Union unit camping right in this area where we are now in October 1862. They claimed they were sitting around, hungry and out of water, and were thinking about going down to one of the farms to beg or steal something, when there was a blast of light in the clearing, and a strange figure appeared to them.

"I read this in a book written by the minister they told the story to, and the minister said they described a kind of angel; he had a dark halo, and a scruffy beard, he wore light colored robes with a hood, and had the Greek word for 'Love' on his chest. The minister guessed at the word, because the boys were illiterate, but they saw three of the letters, and he figured it out from there.

"They told the minister they cried out and all but one of them threw their guns down and fell on the ground. The last boy panicked and took a shot. The angel said to them, 'Hark, do not shoot the messenger of the Lord, for behold, I bear sustenance.' Then he dropped a box that contained pouches of heavenly nectar, which the soldiers shared amongst themselves."

It was an odd little tale, but it sparked a fever of ghost-hunting in the Cub Scouts. They began sharing stupid old campfire stories ("The Ruby Red Lips" and variations of "The Dark, Dark House") or running out to the edge of the campfire light and then running, screaming, back to report strange glowing orbs or fanged creatures grunting in the dark. The littlest ones simply sidled up to a warm, reassuring adult and sat wide-eyed and quiet in the safety of the firelight.

The Little Girl asks our hero for some juice just then. He turns to their tent, and digs around for a minute before realizing that not everything made it out of the car. Which is parked several hundred yards away, up the hill, across the Battlefield. In the dark. The Little Girl informs him, too, that she can't find her baseball. He sighs. "I told you not to bring your baseball," he tells her, then he makes sure that all of the children are accounted for and being watched by someone responsible before heading out into the night.

It is colder this weekend than it has been throughout the warm September, but he is comfortable in his "camping costume". He's got his light tan Gap hoodie and his khaki cargo pants. He's got warm socks and his camo boonie cap. He wanders up the unlit roads between campsites bearing his lantern; fresh batteries and a compact fluorescent bulb mean a reassuringly bright light.

He makes the van and retrieves the case of foil juice bags without incident. The case is four boxes wrapped in plastic; the plastic is torn, because one of the children was thirsty on their drive from Baltimore, and he had to pull out a juice for everyone. He tucks the unruly box in his left arm, clutches the lantern in his right, and heads back.

He gets lost.

Not a big deal, of course, in our day and age. The paths are clear, and they all loop back in on each other, so he's in no danger. He has his light, but no map, and wanders around looking for the way back to site 254. Then, he recognizes the bath house, and the reenactment field, and spots the fires and lights of the Cub Scouts directly across it. He is starting to get cold, and the box of juice is getting heavy, so he decides to cut straight across the field.

He is not watching his step; he is looking up at the stars, and thinking about soldiers in the woods without all of his modern conveniences. The grass is wet. When he slips, his light drops, and there is a flash. He is dazed, and when he looks around, the world is slightly brighter; the moon is more full, and a little behind him. There are about a dozen young, dirty men in period costume in front of him, gaping.

There is a long moment of gaping before anyone does anything. All but one of the boys throw down their weapons, and flop down, covering their heads with their hands. The one boy whips up his rifle, and takes a shot at our hero's head, but his body is more interested in joining his comrades on the ground than in taking aim, and he drops to his knees before the report even stops echoing in the night.

Our hero shouts out a rude word - it might sound a bit like "Hark" - and yells, "Don't shoot! For the love of God!" He bends to snatch up his lantern, which has dimmed, but not gone out. He punches the on/off button: once, to turn it off, then again, and it flares to life. He holds it up and away from his head, thinking that if anyone else wants to send a round his way, they might aim for the light instead of him. Then something clicks, and he puts all of the details together.

He looks down at his sweater, with its great, dark "G", "A", and "P" standing out against the pale tan of the material, and remembers that one Greek word for love was "agape". He realizes that holding the lantern up, and behind his head, creates a halo on the rim of his round, floppy hat. He realizes that his baggy cargo pants probably look like flowing robes thanks to the shadows and unnatural light.

He also realizes that he has dropped one of the boxes full of juice pouches out of his case in the confusion.

But before he can say or do anything else, his light goes out again. When his eyes adjust, he realizes that he's no longer in a dark wood with twelve armed, frightened young men; he can make out the lines of the bath house roof, and hear the laughter from his camp. So, he takes the boxes of juice and his broken lantern, and goes back to his kids.

When he crawls into his sleeping bag that night, he struggles to find comfort in his plush micro-fiber atop his over-filled air mattress. Something is bothering him; something hard, cold, and uncomfortable in the back of his mind. Or in his back. He is so cold, tired, and half-asleep, he can't tell whether it's a physical discomfort or just the thought of those boys in their soldier costumes, cold and terrified and hungry as they tried to survive an October night more than a century and a half before.

He dreams about their fears, and about them fumbling with juice bags - are they any better at jamming that little straw through the hole than his kids are, or do they just lop the tops off the bags with their knives and pour them into their mugs? What do 19th century taste buds think of "Very Berry Splash" or "Pacific Cooler"?

Somewhere in the middle of the dreams, and the tossing and turning, he decides not to tell anyone what happened. He decides just to be glad that he could help - however accidentally - and to be grateful that boys in soldier costumes do their best to do what they think is right, regardless of the doubt and discomfort involved.

And in the morning, when he awakes on his depleted air mattress and discovers the baseball under his left kidney, he laughs, and is grateful that the greatest of his problems is only a self-imposed kind of discomfort.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Everyone I Love Is Here

We all cruise along through life at various levels of awareness. Some of us are acutely aware of every nuance of every situation, and some are clueless about the signals they send out and that they receive in return. I've always leaned more toward the latter category. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that my world was not working the way I thought it was.
When your world is suddenly not where you expected, you start looking around for it. It's a painful and scary experience, not knowing what's real and what's just a self-imposed delusion, but I'm lucky, because I have people around me who aren't afraid to tell me the truth. They anchor me, and help me fix the problems I create.

And in the midst of all of this, there's music. (As if you expected me to write about travel or architecture...)

One dangerous, yet thrilling, thing about a personal crisis is the new meaning that old familiar songs take on. Suddenly, So Much To Say has a depth I never recognized before; the sassy humor of Ben Folds becomes a defiant rallying cry in Philosophy.

Because the emotions can be so volatile and unpredictable, I actually avoid most of my music during times like these. A few years ago, a line from Cool, Cool River hit me so hard, I had to pull to the side of an English fen road and weep while tractors and little, annoyed cars swerved around me. This week, though, I found a special gift in my collection. The Finn Brothers Everyone Is Here, a 2004 CD I picked up at the library last year.What does it mean when
you promise someone
no matter how hard
or whatever may come

It means that I won't give in,
Won't give in...
Won't give in...
'Cause everyone I love is here,
Say it once, and disappear.
Won't Give In
They have my number; the heart of my problem and the solution wrapped together in less than a stanza. But they go further, too, and in six lines, they manage to describe the root of what I'm feeling:Homesick
For the people that I live with
For the spirit I'm missing
For the country that I'm living in
The hardest problems to see are the ones that are right in front of you. The missed opportunities to show, not tell, someone how you feel. The conclusions they draw when they compare your actions to your words. I've been so busy wallowing in my own Homesickness, I haven't seen what has been happening in my own best friend's heart.
I've never had the time before
Leaving things where they fell
I was going door to door
Always thinking I was somewhere else

You saw me
And what I could be
And now I know what love is for
It's the only thing sets you free
Must be the luckiest man alive
Luckiest Man Alive
So now I know all of this. I know what I've done wrong, and how to fix it. I know I'm better off than it seems, and how to make it better. But life is hard, and the road ahead is treacherous. There are no guarantees, only faith in each other.

What am I going to do about it?And I will take my chances
'Cos anything can happen
Don't believe it's over
'Cos anything can happen
Anything Can Happen
That thought cuts both ways; if anything can happen, that means good or bad. But she deserves my faith; and she's hurting, too. She feels guilty for hurting me, but she had to hurt me to get my attention. I don't imagine it's easy to watch someone grapple with a pain that you think you caused, even if you know that it's no one's fault. It's too easy to waste energy blaming yourself. Fortunately, there's some wisdom here for her, too:
All the mud in this town
All the dirt in this world
None of it sticks on you
(You shake it off)
Cause you're better than that
And you don't need it
No, you don't believe it
Nothing Wrong With You
In case there is any doubt about it, the Brothers will say it for me: "I walk along with you/There's nothing wrong with you."

There are a lot of things in this world that are insurmountable. Most people don't come back from the dead, and very few can fly or shoot heat beams from their eyes. But there is no reason to give up, not when there is love like ours in the world, and musicians to remind us.A chance is made
A chance is lost
I carry myself to the edge of the earth.
Won't Give In

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Peaks and Valleys

It's not easy being a human.

Anoak hadn't been human for long, and he could already tell that this was going to be a lot worse than he had first thought. When the new gods came and banished the old ones, including Anoak, to this frozen waste at the top of the world, he had known it would be different and strange. But he hadn't appreciated just how HARD it would be.

He had once known all, and been all powerful; now he was bound by weakness, and lacked all the answers he'd once held so easily in his head. Intelligence is something we don't understand, but it's like any other tool it can both help and hurt, depending on how it is used. Having the capacity for reason and being self-aware are great tools for solving the problems of survival. But the ability to reason also leads humans to ask questions that can't be answered.

Like, "why does it ultimately matter whether I'm eaten by predators, and is it really worth the effort to gather wood and build a shelter if I'm just going to die in a few seasons anyway?"

At first, Anoak had struggled alone with that question. He saw that others hated the obvious answers enough to devise complicated explanations for the way of things; they found reasons to pretend that there was some Higher Purpose, or Greater Plan. Like most, he tried to pretend he had the answers, but when those answers proved weak and false, he tried to simply ignore the problem. Then Anoak met Vula, and he thought he had found something that made the question irrelevant.

Among all the other old gods and new people, Anoak and Vula had something special; a bond that made them feel strong again. No, it did not bring back their magic. There would be no reclaiming of what they had been and had as gods. But now, they felt strong enough to tackle the journey that all mere humans must face.

When they began, they had a small shelter on skids, which they both pulled across the snowy wastes. They had friends in a loose group, all traveling the same roads. But then those friends began to peel off from the group, and the roads forked in ways they hadn't expected. Some left their side, and came back. Others drifted away forever.

Along the way, the children came, and Vula could not pull as she had before. She took on other duties; feeding, tending, nurturing. And as the road tilted horribly Anoak tried to adjust.

They came, though, to a rising plateau. It ascended a foggy mountainside, and they couldn't see the top. They were scared, but Anoak told Vula, "I will pull. It is not too much for me, but there is no better way to go."

It was hard work. Anoak and Vula became weary of their duties. Though they tried to remain cheerful, there were times when the food or firewood was scarce, or it seemed the shelter had been damaged by the rugged terrain. Their friends were more scattered than ever. Some drifted by alone, carrying stories of pitfalls and cliffs along the way that had claimed their partners. Some were still headed up; some down. None really stayed.

Anoak grew tired and afraid, but he put his head down and pulled. He made mistakes, stumbled over rocks on the way; he and Vula grew cross with each other and lost their tempers. The children grew, and resisted helping, wanting only to play. They would climb out and pick up a line to pull, but couldn't pull for long before losing interest and collapsing back in the shelter.

Finally, Vula was able to get down and take up a line again. They stood on a wide part of the plateau, with a steady, daunting slope ahead. It was very foggy, and Anoak warned her, "We must take care to pull in the same direction. We should not grow apart." He didn't see her roll her eyes, or realize how far away she already was.

The fog grew thick, and the children were loud and unruly. Keeping them fed and safe, while pulling the shelter uphill through the thick fog became almost unbearably hard, and Anoak and Vula could not hear each other. Sometimes one thought the other was calling out a warning, or for help, and sometimes they got turned around.

Anoak kept having trouble hearing Vula. He strained at his task, telling himself, I am doing well. I am taking care of them. Other things don't matter, if I can just keep going.

Then he heard her voice in the fog. "I'm going to help someone else, Anoak."

He felt her line slacken, and at the same time, his ankle turned, and he found himself on his knees, staring down into a yawning crack. He screamed in agony, "Please, no! Don't go!"

"I will come back. You'll be fine," she said. "This journey has been too hard on me, and I need to go try something else for a time. Someone else needs my help, and our burdens have weighed on me for too long." He saw her shape, through the fog as she moved away. He was afraid, and hurt, and felt the tug of the shelter pulling him down one way, as fear and gravity pulled him the other. And in his weariness and fear, that Question began to come back: Does it matter what you do? Will your effort lead to anything beyond more effort?

He heard others moving in the fog; friends, maybe. Predators, perhaps. Some who would help, some who would harm; almost all with false answers to that question. He knew he had to protect the children, but didn't know if he could alone. He didn't know if Vula would come back, or if she did, if she would be able to help again. Or if she would stay.

Anoak sat weeping, clutching the line, and trying to decide whether to cry out for help in the cold, dark fog.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tad's First EP Release

Long ago, in another life, I was a community college music student. One of my favorite experiences was the Electronic Studio class, which put me in a lab with a half dozen of the top-of-the-line keyboards, sound manipulators, and Macintosh sequencing programs available in 1992. Before leaving that life to enlist in my new one, I made a couple of cassette recordings. Last week, I found those cassettes, and since my sense of humor is so much more developed than my sense of self-respect, I decided to post some of those recordings online:

No One Called Larry - Old School EP

You don't need to be a member to visit, so feel free to listen and download as much as you like. (I hope you like, at least.) And remember, I get 1/2 cent royalty on each track that you play on that site, even if you aren't a subscriber!

I'm actually most proud of the way the "Birthday Disco" turned out, and of my arrangement of DeBussy's "Beau Soir". "Manic Atari" was something I did on Emlyn's little Casio, before we started the class, and "Manic Atari II" was the version I did on the Ensoniq in the lab; the two versions of "North West Side" are the results of a project that Emlyn and I did together as a joke. Emlyn's much larger and better selection of tunes can be found on also.

Now, one of these days, I hope to put up a "real" No One Called Larry album... but I don't like making promises, because life has a way of interrupting. But let me know what you think, and I'll keep you posted as events warrant.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tad's Sad Little Essay Contest Entry

Holy Cats... I should have known not to trust the Navy!

There is an essay contest afoot at the U.S. Naval Institute's "Get the Gauge" site. They asked contestants to submit their funniest military story, and as you know, I've specialized in those over the last dozen years (give or take).

Well, voting is underway here:

Normally I would tell you "read them all and vote for the best", but for two factors:
*There are too many stories to count, let alone read
*One of them already has 99% of the 138,564 votes.

So, I ask you, my dearly beloved and devoted fans, to please spread some love around, and try to get me into third place. My story is called "Three Strikes" (and it's the first part of the Basic Training story I posted here last month).

Vote early, vote often, and spread the word!

Edit: Update! Apparently, due to a glitch in their system, the voting is going to be reset. This means there is still a chance we could hit first! So go vote... and then feel free to read other stories. ;)

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Veteran's Message to Barack Obama

I've been stewing about this all day. Let's have a little perspective, shall we?

I am a veteran. I have all my limbs, and actually suffered only the usual mental traumas of peacetime service, because I served during the immediate post-Cold War Clinton years. I spent maybe a total of 20 weeks separated from my family in total over nearly 7 years, and that was by choice, to attend a cushy language school. But still, I remain a veteran.

My wife is a veteran. She was gung-ho, duty driven, and would still be in if she hadn't been railroaded by an idiot commander. She had plans that would have done us all proud, and put herself through 22 months of intensive training, only to become a military spouse and watch my frustrating experience from the sidelines. But still, she is a veteran.

And now the entire McCain election campaign has become awash with talk about veterans. Mike Huckabee spoke at the Convention in St. Paul about the school teacher who brought her new students in on the first day to an empty classroom, made them spend the day guessing how they could earn their desks and chairs before having veterans bring the furniture in to demonstrate that "these guys earned your desks FOR you". Every knows all of the gory details of Sen. McCain's Vietnam experience. All of this is meant to guilt us into repaying his service by honoring him with the Office of President, as if the most "veteranly" veteran should be qualified to run the country.

This morning, one of my Facebook friends posted a YouTube video made by an Iraq veteran who accused Sen. Obama of "disrespecting all veterans" by calling the Iraq War a mistake. The rationale here is a Republican favorite: the idea is that the sacrifices made by our soldiers somehow magically make that war "right". The claim is that we are "winning" in Iraq, and that because this soldier (among many others) lost a leg, that redeems the countless civilian casualties and human rights abuses that are inevitable when one country invades another.

Speaking as a veteran, I feel compelled to respond: BOLLOCKS.

The fact is that when the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. occurred in 2001, the stated intent was to draw the U.S. into this war. By 2002, everyone knew that Iraq had nothing to do with those attacks, and yet TO THIS DAY, people still connect 9/11 with the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. That connection was never real, but it was what Osama bin Laden counted on when he set his plan into motion: the U.S. would want revenge, and to the U.S. public, one Muslim enemy is as good as another. He was right about that, and so, thanks to the emotionally charged rhetoric of war-mongering Republicans and the spineless reaction of Congressional Democrats (including Hilary Clinton), bin Laden got what he wanted.

By provoking the U.S. into invading Iraq in March of 2003, al-Qaida "won" the war.

Individually, I love our soldiers. The vast majority of them are good-hearted people who want to make this world better, and all of them believe that what they are doing is right and good. I hope they keep doing what they believe is right and good, and I hope that the Iraqi people are beginning to appreciate those intentions. However, our military is a weapon that was used on them, and the hand that wielded that weapon belongs to everyone who agreed to use that weapon in anger against an adversary who had not harmed us.

Our soldiers put themselves in harms way to try to bring peace to a shattered land. They are trying to create a safe environment for the Iraqis to build schools and improve their infrastructure; they bring toys and candy to the children. Those are all good things, but what I can't understand is this: Why does anyone expect that to make up for the mistake we made by invading in the first place? Would any of you forgive an army that rolled into our cities, killed our government, and allowed rampant looting, just because they then built us some schools? Would you look upon foreign soldiers with favor because they gave your kid a Hershey bar? Or a teddy bear?

No, you wouldn't.

I still refuse to believe that the Iraq War was about oil. If it was, then it failed. But I believe that the War was a political gamble, meant to cover up for a multitude of inadequacies that have been revealed by the events of the last several years. Judging by the words I hear from people like this YouTube veteran, it worked. There has been no progress in repairing or replacing Social Security, no reform in our abysmally unfair and opaque Immigration laws, and large steps backward in protecting our health and our natural resources.

And now, the Republicans want to give us their Second Choice a crack at things; the man they couldn't get behind 8 years ago. And even he isn't the main attraction in this election; the Base is being galvanized by a "yummy hockey mommy" who thinks that abortion is the most dire threat to our nation, and that Iraq is a Holy War that God wants us to fight while we continue to whore ourselves to the oil companies.

None of that is made right by the sacrifices of our soldiers. And none of that is made right by claiming a special moral high ground for veterans. If you are a veteran who feels hurt by the events of the last several years, you have my sympathy; but it gives you no political credibility. And it gives you no right to speak for me publicly.

My wife and I are veterans, and our message to Barack Obama is this: you have promised us change, and you have shown us a staggering amount of dignity during a very difficult time. In your acceptance speech to the National Convention, you pledged to get us off of our addiction to oil, relieve the tax burden on our working families, and to deal with socially divisive issues in a fair and pragmatic manner. You, sir, will get my vote, because I believe that these goals are possible, and no one else will say that.

And while I would never presume to speak for all veterans and soldiers, I guarantee I do speak for more than a few of them.

May the deity of your choice bestow blessings on everyone; because we certainly need them.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Helping a Fellow Writer

Some of you have heard/read me gushing about my favorite podcast, Escape Pod. Of the many fine authors to appear there, a couple are semi-regulars. One of my personal favorites, Jeff DeRego, is the author of the "Union Dues", a series of short stories with a take on super-heroes in a real world setting.

I just learned that Jeff had emergency bypass surgery at the end of last week, and that there is a PayPal donation account available for anyone who would like to help the family (details at the Escape Pod site).

I don't have much to offer in the way of cash, but I did what I could, and now I'm asking you all to take a moment to consider helping out, too. This isn't a random plea for charity, as I see it; this is a chance to show the power of our social network, to make a difference and help a friend. If nothing else, I hope you'll follow the links above and check out Escape Pod and the Union Dues stories.

If you can help with some money, fantastic. If you like science fiction (or fantasy... or horror... or superheroes) I think you'll enjoy the stories.

But the best part is, you know if you ever need help from us, we're here.

Three Strikes; AFBMT pt. 2

Six Little Words (pt. 1)

"Who likes bowling?" asked our Air Force Basic Military Training Instructor (TI), Senior Airman Young.

It was the morning of day one, and we had been permitted a total of two hours or sleep - just enough to assure that even the most stressed out insomniac would have dropped from sheer exhaustion - only to rise to the 0400 wake-up call: "Geddupgeddupgeddup Get UP!" It was all calculated to keep our defenses down.

Which is why so many of us were dumb enough to raise our hands at his question.

Thus, I began my Air Force career in my underwear and on my knees, scrubbing the latrine with four other 18- to 24-year-old recruits. Heads freshly shaved, and smelling strongly of new uniforms, quivering after almost two days of mental anguish, we scrubbed the drab tiles and scoured toilets until they were as clean as the medical facilities. We went so far as to use Brasso polish on any exposed pipes we could reach, and to fold the torn edges of the toilet paper roll into neat triangles.

And yet, somehow, we still failed miserably. Each daily inspection would reveal some missed detail: a stray pubic hair stuck in a remote corner of the shower, a tiny gobbet of shaving cream clinging to the underside of the sink, and even a tiny, stray turd which had miraculously appeared in one of the urinals after we thought we had finished our cleaning for the day. Who poops in a urinal?

Our Latrine Squad was a roaring success compared to our "House Mouse," however. SrA Young, had reviewed our records and learned that Airman Speck and myself were the two "most educated" airmen in the flight, having both attended some college. Speck had a degree, though, and was made "Mouse" - a thankless job that added cleaning the TI's office and scheduling the 24-hour dorm guard watch to his other Basic duties. I silently offered a prayer of thanks that I had never finished that music degree! Speck seemed to take to the job, carrying a little notebook around to jot down SrA Young's instructions and requests from other recruits to swap dorm guard shifts with each other.

It was the Dorm Guard Monitor part of the job that brought him down. Part of the duty was "training" the rest of us in dorm guard policies and procedures: how to challenge visitors, what to say, whom to allow in, operating the door. Everything one needed to know was even printed on a large chart next to the door. If it sounds easy, that's because it was. Only, no one could get it right.

Strike one, day eight: 0330. Taylor was caught dozing at the dorm guard station by SrA Young's boss, Technical Sergeant Burns. TSgt Burns was a sour, angry man, aptly named as any shred of sympathy for us had long ago been charred out of him. He withered SrA Young with a blistering stream of invective over having incompetent dorm guards.

Strike two, day twelve: 1115. Reams (of course) allowed the squadron Superintendent into the building without checking his ID card. SrA Young, furious, warned Speck that the next mistake made by one of his guards would cost him his job as Mouse. Speck redoubled his efforts to "train" us, begging us to read the procedures in our manual every spare minute. There weren't many spare minutes, as we were also supposed to be learning everything in the manual for our final written exam: Customs & Courtesies, Air Force History, First Aid, Chain of Command, Code of Conduct, "Pillars of Service," and more. He would sidle up to people during "free time" and whisper cryptically, "Remember, call the dorm to attention for any officers that enter!" or "Announce 'Female in the dorm!' whenever a female comes in!"

The first of three Command inspections by the Major was scheduled for day 18. SrA Young savaged us at his daily inspection, and drilled us over every tiny mistake. Turning to Speck, he growled, "You better put somebody COMPETENT on dorm guard!" He was still smarting from the incident with the departed Reams, who had only the day before been forcibly ejected from our little ball game. We milled about, nervously fiddling with our gear, and trying to catch any last-minute errors before the Major arrived. That was when we heard Morgan start the door routine.

"Sir! Please present identification!" A brief pause, and then: "Dorm - Tench HUT!"

Fifty airmen snapped to attention, and the Major came striding in with his executive officer and TSgt Burns. They checked the latrines first (mercifully turd-free) and began working through the bunk and wall lockers in the East Bay. All went well, until...

"Sir! Please present identification!" A brief pause, and then: "Dorm - Tench HUT!"

SrA Young's face purpled as he watched the Major snap to. You don't call the Commander to attention, unless... Into the dorm came the Group and Wing commanders! The Colonel greeted the Major, and introduced the General, who was conducting a surprise visit, and had asked to see one of the inspections. The Major sent his XO, a jittery 2nd lieutenant, scurrying out to get the General a pad of inspection forms so he could join in. We were petrified, but things still seemed to be under control. Then, once again...

"Sir! Please present identification!" A brief pause, and then: "Dorm - Tench HUT!"

All eyes shifted to the sight of the General standing at attention, and then to SrA Young, who must have expected the President to walk through the door at that point - about the only reason to call a General to attention at all! Instead, the XO came nervously into the room. SrA Young's face went beyond purple, back around the spectrum to red again, and he ran, elbows pumping, down the center of the aisle between the bunks, his scream of rage building as he went: "No-o-o-o-o-o-oo-oo-ooo-ooo-oooo-ooOOOOOOOOO!!"

He slammed into the wall next to Morgan and screeched into his face: "TELL ME YOU DID NOT JUST CALL A GENERAL TO ATTENTION FOR A LITTLE STINKING LIEUTENANT!!!"

Morgan, already pale, turned green with horror, and - staying rigidly at attention - called over his shoulder. "General!" he squeaked, "At EASE!"

Thus, the job of House Mouse fell to me. Any hope I had to return to anonymity after shooting my mouth off the day before (when Reams made his ignominious exit) vanished as SrA Young's face split into a Grinch-like grin. "Oh, it's YOU!" he said. "Let's see if you're witty enough to train your flight to guard the stinking door!"

I hated the job from the start. I was struggling enough with my own duties; every inspection found some new deficiency in sock or underwear folding, and even with the help of my neighbors, element leader, squad leader, and the dorm chief (our student commander) some seemingly impeccable item would draw a demerit every time. Adding the TI's office only made it worse, as I had less time to devote to arranging my underwear according to regulations.

The Dorm Guard schedule didn't help, either. I quickly wearied of hearing people ask for specific shifts, and of keeping track of who had swapped with whom. After being awakened twice on my first night to settle disputes between remorseful swappers, I declared that there would be no more trades. Shift assignments would be final when I posted them on the bulletin board each week. My only consideration was to keep someone sharp on duty when we were likely to get visitors; which could be any time.

I struggled on, failing inspections, irritating my fellow airmen with the schedules I posted, and trying everything I could to get my duffel bag folded correctly. SrA Young seemed sympathetic, since I wasn't a discipline problem, and he could see I was trying as hard as I could. I made point of keeping my bearing - which mostly meant keeping my mouth shut - even when threatened with the dreaded Recycling. Strike one was my inability to pass an inspection; I couldn't afford any other problems.

"Hey, Mouse," came a voice from behind me. Startled, I whipped around to see Muncie, a skinny, black kid with a gigantic head that bobbled when he walked. He sneaked into the TI office through its rear door while I was sweeping under the bed. "Mouse, you gotta put me on dorm guard at night."

"I don't do requests," I snapped. I didn't trust him, either. He was supposed to become an SP, the Air Force's Security Police, but he hadn't shown any of the qualities typically associated with cops. For example, at the rifle range, he dropped his M-16 the first time he fired it as though it had turned into a snake, and wailed "I cain't DOOO it!" until they came and took him away.

"C'mon, man," he persisted. "You oughta put me on at night... you need me!"


"'Cause I like to creep," he said, a gleam in his eye.

The thought of this weird little man - like Golem with glasses - lurking near my bed while I slept gave me the cold shivers, and I kicked him out of the office. Before he left, though, he hissed at me, "You'll be sorry!" and slammed the door.

I heard something fall behind the desk and shatter.

I dove under the desk, only to pull out the remains of one of SrA Young's prized awards: a model of one of the missile's he had worked on before joining the Training Wing. Before I could decide what to do, the door opened, and there stood SrA Young, looking down on a cowering airman, sitting on the floor of his office in his underwear, and holding his broken missile.

Strike Two.


We had all been warned: anyone failing this inspection would be sent to the Superintendent to be considered for Recycle. TSgt Burns had as much as promised that someone would go by the end of the week; we were SrA Young's first solo training flight, and TSgt Burns felt that our lackluster performance would only improve if he followed through on that ultimate of threats.

Three of us failed that inspection. We were told to line up at attention next to the door. TSgt Burns was called on the intercom, and the other two failures began to swoon and moan, tears welling up in their eyes. I was merely angry, and stood locked at attention, gritting my teeth.

On dorm guard was my friend, Jay. I had specially selected him for this shift so that someone I trusted would be on duty during the inspection. He had performed flawlessly... until TSgt Burns' face appeared mashed in the window and demanded to be let in. Jay did well, following the script on the door. Until, that is, TSgt Burns, the sadist, left the script.

"Sir! Please present identification!"

"You just called me! Lemme in, you piece of crap!" bellowed the Evil One.

Rattled, Jay managed to follow the directions on the board by the door, and said, "Please report to the orderly room for assistance, sir."

"I just CAME from there! You know who I am, now let me IN!" TSgt Burns himself had taught us the class on dorm guard procedure... especially stressing the policy against personal recognition. At this point, Jason was supposed to repeat the previous instruction, and then call downstairs for help. Instead, he said:


TSgt Burns blinked, and whispered, "What did you say?"

"I said, ‘NO, I can't do that, sir!" Jay shouted. You could safely say that he had lost it.

TSgt Burns went berserk, hurling himself against the door, screaming, and snarling like a pit bull after a rabbit in its hole. The thick, steel door shook in its concrete frame. Saliva dripped down the outside of the window. SrA Young strode to the door and let him in.

Crossing the threshold, TSgt Burns transformed into the picture of composure, and turned to Jay. "Who is your dorm guard monitor, airman?" Jay, standing at attention now, pointed at me. Me, against the wall with the other two blubbering on either side of me, an obvious trio of losers. My insides churning, I stood staring fixedly at a point about six inches in front of my face; precisely the space where TSgt Burns placed his face as he said:

"Pack your bags."

Strike Three.


To be continued...

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lb4Lb#6: Music for Recuperation

I've written before about the way my body reacts to over the counter cold remedies. People have told me, "People pay good money on the street to feel that way," but I'd rather keep my money and NOT have to deal with the "side effects". As amusing as it might be to have my bedroom furniture talk to me, or to sit and watch the ceiling fan turn rainbow colors while lofting little fairies into the air around me... I'd just as soon stay in control of my own imagination.
Cheer up, honey I hope you can
There is something wrong with me
Radio Cure
I've been told that certain albums are improved by having your mind artificially expanded.Radioheads keep telling me I'd "get" some of their more obscure stuff if I'd just take a little something to help out, but I like The Wall just fine when I'm cold sober, thank you very much. I think music should stand up on its own, in general.

I have to admit, though, that being wired on cold meds has given certain albums more impact that they would have otherwise had on my cynical brain. Sometimes I don't let them work on the dark, secret parts of my psyche that they are intended for.

So while I won't go seeking them out, my few brushes with the High Life - at perfectly legal and unmodified dosages of Dextromethorphan and Phenylephrine - have given me some appreciation for "pharmacologically enhanced listening experiences"... a "radio cure", if you will.
I wonder why we listen to poets
When nobody gives a fuck
Ashes of American Flags
Experiencing physical weaknesses, along with the usual emotional or spiritual crises, leaves one with time to think about the less obvious ailments. If art has to have a purpose, isn't that a good one?

I was down hard when Wilcocrossed my transom; life was demanding a lot of us, and on top of the long hours of work and commute, I got hit with a pretty serious sinus infection. So, out came the drugs.
I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I'm hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Is there a better way to start an album when you have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and are whacked out on decongestant? I swear I could taste the aquarium water, and the fever was causing flashes of light behind my lids anyway.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has an interesting story behind it, anyway, which you can track down elsewhere easily enough. For me, the first impression was of a man trying to battle down the dazed delirium of his life and seize the flashes of beauty and joy that he hoped were real before they evaporated into the dream. The teetering balance of breathless harmonies and pleasant pop with the odd and disturbing sound scape creates an effective picture of someone exasperated with his situation, but determined to fix it.

I could certainly relate to that.
Every place around the world it seemed the same
Can't hear the rhythm for the drums
Everybody wants to look the other way
When something wicked this way comes
Jeremiah Blues
Sometimes, even if you feel it coming and take precautions, sickness can carry you out to sea. Waves of nausea crash over, capsize you and leave you wishing for that blinking city. That's where I was when I ran across The Soul Cages near the end of my college career.

Introspective reflections on his father, and cerebral ocean metaphors were not what the critics wanted from Sting's second solo outing. A lot of Police fans considered this a sign that Sting had "lost it", or had gone soft.

It gave me something to float on while I was drowning, though, and helped me smooth the emotional seas I was navigating. (It didn't hurt that I was recovering from some kind of allergy attack with the help of some anti-histamines, of course.)
Men go crazy in congregations
But they only get better
One by one
All This Time
Nothing is a panacea. There is no "one-stop shop", no "one size fits all". Every drug affects everyone differently. These are just two examples of good medicine, taken as needed.

Next time you're down, try these out, and call me in the morning.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Six Little Words: Basic Training pt. I

You are on a bus. It is the middle of the night. You have been awake for twenty hours, and as the bus pulls through a gate guarded by men with machine guns and faces hidden by the shadows from their strangely shaped caps, you see a bizarre line of buildings that appear to have been built upside down. Their ground floor is about half the area of the three upper floors, making it look like a layer cake dropped on its top - a cake made of pale brick with pill-box windows placed high up on the walls. Spotlighting from the ground gives it all an eerie, alien illumination. This will be your home for two months.

The bus pulls up in front of a modular trailer, and you are shuffled off, along with the other riders. You have an envelope with six names on it. The other five people gather loosely around you; strangers who have been told to stay with you because you hold their identities. You are all herded into lines, which slowly file into the short, narrow building full of uniformed men with bulldog faces, bristly haircuts, and a walk that speaks of violence. They don't look at your faces, and if you make eye contact, they will react as if you have physically challenged them. They constantly shout or sneer because you have failed to do something expected of you, or you have done something wrong.

It's as if you are incapable of doing anything right. You stand wrong, you sit wrong, you get up when you are supposed to sit - and don't even think about leaning against a wall or on a table. You try a sheepish grin, hoping for someone to say, "It's alright... just do this." Instead, the person at the desk - Holy Cats, is that supposed to be a woman? - bellows at you: "Are you LAUGHING at me? Get your meat handlers off my desk!"

After another eternity of hurried waiting - going on hour twenty-two - you are herded once again outside. You move in an amorphous mob, like an amoeba with scuffed sneakers and slept-in hair, sheepdogs in camouflage and smokey-the-bear hats nipping at your heels. "Keep moving!" "Hurry UP!" "That way, that way, that way! Did your mother have any children that lived?" Their voices are ice, and their words are chipped stone. Hard, cold edges welcoming you to your new life.

They are ushering your group toward the upside down buildings, cutting out smaller groups and lining them up on the asphalt pads under the overhanging ceilings. Someone barks a number, and it matches the number printed on a card in your hand, so you follow the barking and line up with 49 other dazed sheep in jeans and various T-shirts. Now they start the games.

"Pick up your bags! NO! Not fast enough! Put 'em down! Now, all at the SAME TIME... Pick 'em up...NO!"

"Stand at attention! Do you know HOW to stand at attention? YOU CALL ME 'SIR'! Everything you say will begin with 'Sir'! Sir, yes, SIR! Sir, no, SIR!"

"What does your shirt say? SHUTTUP! I can read! 'Co-ed Naked Firefighter; Find 'Em Hot and Leave 'Em Wet?'... What is THAT supposed to mean?"

Three of them gather around the guy with the Co-ed Naked Shirt. They pepper him with questions, and you stare straight ahead, thanking any god up at this hour that you wore a plain, solid blue shirt today. Yesterday. Whatever. The other guy is flustered, which is the point of this exercise, but he keeps his bearing. He stays at attention, and doesn't look any of them in the eye; they hate that. Unfortunately, he claims not to know what his shirt "means." Why did he wear it? He is slow to answer, and they harangue him.

"Why would you wear a shirt when you don't know what it means?" "Are you dumb? Can't you read it?" "Why would you buy a shirt you can't read? Why would anyone buy a shirt like that?"


There is a hanging silence as they all stop yelling, and try to stifle a laugh. He has scored a small point, but one of your fellow newbies fails to hold back a snort, and they are on him like hyenas on a sick zebra. "What are YOU laughing at? Who gave you that haircut? You didn't PAY for that, did you?"


It surprises people when I tell them that I didn't speak for 17 days. I answered questions, and I called cadence. I spoke when spoken to, and gave my reporting statement when required. "Sir, Airman Blogs reports as ordered." They called that the Six Little Words. They made us write it on a slip of paper and repeat it about a thousand times the first morning. For most of us, the boredom was just another test; one of the ongoing mind games, the point usually being to teach us Self-Discipline and Attention to Detail. But, there were still guys that didn't get it.

"Airman Reams reporting as ordered, Sir!"

"WRONG!! Reams, do it again!"

"Sir," Reams flustered, "Airman Reams reporting as ordered!"

"NO! Are you working for a newspaper? No 'reporting'! Do it again!"

"I don't know what you want!" wailed Reams.


No, I didn't speak for 17 days. That was how long it took for them to decide to get rid of Reams.

The Six Little Words weren't the only words Reams had trouble with. He was constantly drawing fire for making dumb little mistakes, and when they came after him, his eyes rolled in his head, and he wailed like a whipped dog. He was nervous all the time, always casting paranoid looks at the rest of us. We tried to help him, but he seemed to blame us for watching his disgrace, and he reacted with defensiveness and suspicion. It was like trying to free a dog with a paw caught in a chain-link fence; he snaps at you and won't let you near him, and whines because you won't set him loose.

He wasn't entirely a victim. They gave him every chance to get with it. I heard the sergeant pull him aside and talk to him in the Calm Voice - the voice of an actual human coming from someone in authority almost brought me to tears as he explained to Reams, "We aren't trying to hurt you. We're putting you under stress so you can learn to function as if you were in combat. You need to learn to take orders and do your job no matter what. We have to be sure you won't fold under pressure. You haven't shown me that you get it, yet."

It was nothing we hadn't been told before; they made no effort to conceal the fact that this was one long, grinding mind game. Marines have to be tough, so they run. The Army has to be combat ready, so they yell "hoo-ah" a lot. Navy guys have to deal with ship-life, so they are taught to swim. We in the Air Force were mostly headed for "behind the lines" duty; administrative support, medical, intelligence, even flight line is well back from the "front" in modern warfare. They wanted to pick at us, needle us, erode our patience, just so they could be sure we weren't going to go nuts someday and kill everyone in our office over some small thing.

We had it better than the other branches of service, and we knew it; but we all needed some basic training in dealing with authority and working under pressure, and that was what they were giving us. (Not to mention some valuable lessons in hygiene and living among other people, which some needed more than others!) Everyone seemed to understand that. Except for Reams.

It was as if he refused to understand what he was supposed to be doing. He wouldn't talk to anyone, except to complain. He wouldn't do his details, never made his bed right, always left something unlocked or unsecured. If we pointed out a mistake he would grow sly, sneer at us and accuse us of picking on him; if we let him get caught making a mistake, he would cry - literally, with real tears - that we weren't watching out for him. The final straw came the day we went to the medical center for blood testing.

Our flight was fifth or sixth in line that day, standing in formation in front of the building in the hot, San Antonio sunshine. The medical center was across the street from the shoppette, where we had been allowed to go our first week to buy essentials; toothpaste, razors, small uniform items, etc. Reams kept glancing over at the vending machines and pay phones, muttering under his breath. Finally, when all of the instructors had their backs turned at the same time, he made his move.

"I've gotta call my mom," he said, and set out straight for the little building across the street. Two hundred and fifty silent airmen stood at attention, no one quite sure what to do. We couldn't stop him without getting into trouble ourselves, and no one wanted to be the one to rat him out. But someone finally uttered a timid "Sir?" A familiar bulldog face turned back toward us, annoyed... and spotted the tall, gangling form of Reams as he disappeared into the shoppette.

We expected quite a show; shouting, running, perhaps even some physical violence. Instead, our sergeant quietly asked one of the other instructors to keep an eye on us, and left. We filed through the building, gave up our blood, and were marched home, where we went straight to our day room and sat quietly on the floor, waiting.

For us, the worse thing that could be done to us, among all of the punishments at their disposal, was Recycling. To be Recycled, taken out of your flight and put back with a "younger" one - people who were two weeks behind yours, and thus, two weeks further from graduating from Basic Military Training - that was considered the ultimate horrible fate. We had received two Recyclees from older flights ourselves; they were pathetic, broken little men. They were obviously simple, terrified, and dismal at their duties. But they had tried harder than Reams had, and we had done our best to make them welcome.

We couldn't imagine anything worse that Recycling, except, perversely, being kicked out. There had been rumors about those few who had disappeared after only one or two nights. Utter losers who hadn't been able to handle even Air Force basic training, and had quietly gone to the commander and asked to be released. Prevailing opinion was that they shouldn't have signed up if they couldn't go the distance; this was a game for adults, not little children who changed their minds and ran home to mommy! The only thing left for that kind of loser - and this opinion was expressed by everyone up to and including the squadron commander - would be a job in a paper hat, serving fried food to people for the rest of said loser's miserable life. Even Recycling was better than that.

After an hour or so of intense silence, broken by uncomfortable whispers, we heard the door guard let someone in. We heard the taps on his boots as he strode down the hall. He burst into the room, a look on his face that was a mixture of irked annoyance, and minor triumph. "Well, Flight, Airman Reams will not be joining us for chow tonight. He has decided that learning the Six Little Words was just too hard. He will have to learn a different Six Little Words."

We were stunned. We felt partially responsible, maybe out of a sense of duty to a 'comrade at arms'; maybe just because we couldn't save him. We also felt relief that we wouldn't have to put up with his crap any more. I think it was this relief that tripped me up. Relief loosened my tongue, and after maintaining a low profile with my 17-day silence, I hazarded a guess as to which Six Little Words Reams would have to learn: "Would you like fries with that?"

Forty-nine airmen and one sergeant burst into laughter, and all eyes focused on me. For a brief moment, I basked in the bonhomie, and the attention, but my blood ran cold the next moment, as the sergeant leveled his glittering, rattlesnake eyes at mine and said, "A funny guy, huh? I'll have to keep my eye on YOU, now!"

To be continued...

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fishing With Dad

Originally posted Wednesday, August 11, 2004

I love my dad. Even better, I know my dad loves me. The only trouble is that we are very much alike.

Oh, sure, growing up I used to hear some of the "small town chatter" that people of my grandparents' generation still believed about fathers and sons. Talk of the way Dr. Eismann's boy acted just like his old man, right down to sitting on his foot when he spoke to people. The whole "he has his eyes and her nose" game they play with newborn babies. I always blew that stuff off until I saw my own sons turning into me. Then I began to look at my dad in a whole new way.

I mentioned one time how I had noticed that I was beginning to turn into him, and he blanched in horror. "I'm so sorry," he said. We laughed about it, too, but there was no denying that sense of dread that men of our line were inescapably cursed to be...well, to be like us. Easy-going, funny, amiable, and yet, hapless. A little accident prone. Somewhat likely to say the wrong thing in public when we got nervous. Nothing flamboyantly evil or wrong, but just us. Frustratingly and unavoidably passing along some kind of dork gene.

My grandfather had a history of clumsiness. He used to restore Volkswagen Beetles - the old kind that used to come to life in movies - and no matter how careful he was, he always picked up some new and unlikely injury. The trunk lid would fall on his arm when he reached for a tool. A fender would leap off the car and crush his toe. Once a tire exploded while he filled it with air. One car was particularly creative, leaving his arms all scabbed up like a nine-year-old skateboard novice: he named it Fang and painted it a horrible shade of orange out of spite.

Dad's luck was more subtly bad, and of a more self-inflicted nature. On long car trips, when we made a rest stop, he would accidentally lock the keys in the car. At church picnics, if he was asked to carry any food into the church, he would slip and drop whatever dish or pie he held top-down on the floor. (He quickly learned to only carry unbreakable things with lids.) I recall one occasion when, after locking the keys in the car while picking my sister and I up at school, we had to cross a busy road to get to my mom and her spare set of keys. Half-way across, while cautioning us to be careful and not to run, his shoes slipped on the hot tarmac. As he went down, flat on his back, he shoved us up onto the curb with his last bit of balance. That was my dad; hapless, but always heroic.

I think it was his resistance to this haplessness that made him so careful. He always had a number of little projects going on; house repair, car repair, painting, mending, landscaping. He always focused hard on things he did around the house, and didn't like it when I came around distracting him. It's not that he didn't want me around; he was just too used to doing these things alone by the time I was old enough to take an interest in them. For my part, I was perfectly content to wander about in my little fantasy world, playing "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" by myself. Whenever I got too close to what he was working on, he would gently mention something else I could be doing.

After he had finished the project at hand, he would always come find me to play ball, or go swimming. I think now that he must have felt bad for excluding me, though I didn't take it that way. I never felt neglected at all. Even if I had, I really couldn't blame him; after all, I am his son. I am the Crown Prince of Accidents.

I am the kid that was playing on the frame of his pickup truck while he tied down a full load of lumber the summer he built our cabin in Colorado. Just as he cinched the last knot around the last bundle of 2X4's, there was the soft but definite *POP*Hiissssssss..... of me stepping on the valve stem of his right rear tire. I am also the kid that threw a softball to him while he wasn't looking, and popped him in the nose - this happened on the same day that his bandages came off from the surgery on his "doubly deviated septum".

I think it was my flamboyant display of haplessness that led him to seize that chance to prod me into the military. Of all of the slackers in my generation, I had shown a special talent for apathy and my shoulder muscles were overdeveloped from all of the shrugging I had done.

"What are you going to major in?" Shrug. "What school will you go to?" Shrug. "How are you going to pay for it?" Shrug. "What kind of job are you going to get?" Shrug.

Dad didn't exactly call the recruiter and tell them to come and get me, but after I signed the papers, he acted like he had. His guilt was palpable. I tried to reassure him, telling him that if I hadn't thought it was a good idea I wouldn't have signed up. We weren't at war at the time, and despite the prevailing family trait, he and grandpa had both survived the Army, hadn't they? Besides, I was going into one of the more cerebral desk jobs in the Air Force. (As we were to find out later, there was no way they were ever going to let me so much as look at a weapon.)

He still felt a pang every time we talked about it, though. It was a whole long month before I was to ship out, and while I got more and more excited about the idea of moving on, he seemed more and more concerned. Until one afternoon, when he came to me with a twinkle in his eye and invited me to go fishing.

I knew he had bought a boat. I had seen it under the tarp in the back yard. I also knew that it wasn't ready; most of his projects of late had been related to boat repair. At last, he had made it lake-worthy, and was ready to go. He wanted one last father/son event before I left, and I agreed whole-heartedly.

We dragged out of bed at 3:30 the next morning, packed a cooler full of sandwiches, sodas, and snacks. He waved me off while he hitched up the trailer, so I dozed in the cab of the truck until we were ready. It was about a 45 minute ride to the lake. There were about half a dozen other boats ahead of us at the little concrete launch slip. When our turn came, dawn was creeping over the circle of low hills (we in Arizona called them "mountains") around the lake. The lake was still steely gray and in shadow, while the hills erupted with gold rods of light. Half an hour more, and the dome overhead would already be a pale blue, and the lake would already have overflowed with glare and would have started casting shards of it back at the sun. It would have been nice to see.

However, being who we were, it wasn't meant to be. Our turn came, and I stood by the water, guiding dad as he backed the trailer down into the lake. He set the brake, came back, and we shoved it off. I held the rope as he went and parked, pulling the boat along the little rocky shore so someone else could launch. Dad came down, and we hopped in. The water was lower than either of us had ever seen it, what with the drought being in its third or fourth year. Dad wanted to row out a good distance before firing up the motor. We got out about 100 yards, almost halfway to the line of buoys marking the edge of the lake proper. Dad dropped the engine down and fired it up.

Vrrrr-RRROOOMMMMM!!! *clank*

It was a small sound, like a rock off your windshield. He almost tried to start it again, but thought better of it. When he pulled the engine back up, the propeller was already ruined. It looked like a rose; all of the "petals" were folded up and in on each other. Dad looked down into the water, and saw the large, concrete block that we could see in the settling murk. He uttered the worst profanity I ever heard him use: "Crap." Then his jaw set, and he unshipped the oars.

Yeah, it was funny later. We chuckled wryly over it seven years later, in fact, after I had served my time and returned home with a growing family. He was standing on a chair, helping me put up a shelf in the laundry room. The baby-gate was up across the hallway to keep my son from getting into the nails.

"I better watch it. I'm getting to be as bad as your grandfather, clumsy-wise," he was saying.

Just then, he whacked his thumb with the hammer. Startled, I leapt forward to catch him, and only managed to upset the box of nails. Dad shook his head as they scattered everywhere.

"Well," he said, shaking his head good-naturedly and nursing his thumb, "there's still hope for the boys." The older boy chose that moment to charge around the corner, and ran headlong into the gate, which gave out. After a brief flurry, he landed on his back, blinking up at the ceiling and gripping the gate which lay on his chest.

We sat there, not wanting to laugh, and watching pained, embarrassed, or dazed expressions alternate on our strikingly similar faces. Three generations of hapless men, slowly turning into each other.

"Okay," said Dad, "There's still one more boy."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Part Two: Saying Goodbye

Originally posted Sunday, July 25, 2004

My recruiter told me to stay out of trouble. I was shipping out to basic training in two weeks, and all of the paperwork was done; if I got so much as a speeding ticket, it would screw everything up. I figured I was a pretty easygoing fellow, staying out of trouble should be easy, right?

I tried to have some last minute fun, went crazy and saw some concerts with my friends. Saw Elvis Costello with the Crash Test Dummies, Huey Lewis and the News, and even Kenny Loggins (thanks to the State Fair). Believe it or not, that was great. The last weekend before I was to leave, my oldest friend, Brian, came up with tickets to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Now, Brian and I had known each other since at least seventh grade, when we sat next to each other in band. In all that time, he never expressed any desire to learn to drive or to saddle himself with the expense and bother of owning a car. Until now. We were going to travel across town to Gammage Auditorium to see Jesus Christ Superstar in his brand new - to him - 1978 Honda Civic. He had, inevitably, dubbed it "The Beast."

I lived in my parents' house in the extreme northwest of Phoenix, and Arizona State University is in Tempe, located to the southeast of Phoenix. About 40 miles in The Beast.

We made it, and parked, and waded through the picket lines. Four nuns were marching with signs that said "Don't Make Fun of My Lord" or "The Savior Isn't Silly" in front of the theater. A couple of fundamentalist types were standing off to one side smoldering at the Catholics for trumping their own demonstration. It made me nervous, and I planned to head for exits on the other side of the theater if they started rioting.

The show was great, though they went a little too "campy" during Herod's big scene. It was the scene the protesters objected to, of course. Herod was dancing around in a leather S&M suit, smacking his butt and vamping around Jesus, who stood stoically at center stage. I leaned over to Brian and pointed out that Herod's mockery of Jesus is recorded in the Bible, but you never see anyone protest at the book stores. On our way out, we wondered whether the picketing nuns might have appreciated this point... but this conversation died a quick death when we got to The Beast.

The Beast had developed a problem while we were inside enjoying ourselves: three flat tires. One of them was the spare. After a bit of head scratching, we decided to limp the aged monster across the street to a filling station and try to inflate them for the ride home. Our plan was to see how far we could get before they went flat again, thinking we could leapfrog across town from air pump to air pump. The only danger there was in running out of quarters.

Alas, after filling them up, they were flat again after half a block. We debated turning around to go back to the filling station when I recognized the neighborhood we were in, and suggested that we stop at Bronwyn's place. Bronwyn was my former roommate. He had returned from his summer in South Africa to attend ASU, and set himself up in a tiny little one-bedroom place not far from the campus. We invaded his house, and tried to phone Brian's dad to come and rescue us. No answer.

"It's alright," said Bronwyn. "I'm borrowing a car for the summer. I'll just run you back to Glendale, and you can come pick up The Beast tomorrow." Brilliant!

So, we piled into a tiny little two-door contraption belonging to one of Bronwyn's classmates, an exchange student from Bangladesh, who had left the car, but no insurance or registration documents.

"Well," I said, "just don't get pulled over, because I can't afford any trouble this close to shipping out."

Brian was dejected. His "new" car was a bust, and he was fuming over the possible costs of getting it repaired, towed, and otherwise relocated back to our side of town. As he fumed, he smoked Camel after Camel, flicking the ashes carelessly out the sunroof. Most of them made it out of the car, but I had to duck a few stray cinders that blew back into the microscopic back seat, where I had folded myself up like a very heavy map.

We were cruising down the road, laughing at our own absurdity, when I began to choke on smoke. It didn't smell like cigarettes, though. I looked down, and saw that it was pouring out from UNDER the driver's seat.

Bronwyn noticed it at about the same time, and began furiously changing lanes, trying to get to the side of the road. We careened across eight lanes of traffic, screaming as thickening, blackening smoke poured out the windows. The car finally stopped, and Bronwyn and Brian leapt from the car like it was about to explode, leaving me stuck in the back. I frantically reached around looking for the latch that would release me from the charbroiler I was trapped in, and realized that there was no way out. I heard yelling from outside the car, and heard Brian fumbling around, trying to rescue me. I slipped, and landed head first on the floor of the car, which was littered with papers, and came eye to flame with the smoldering upholstery.

Then I saw salvation: a water bottle!

I unscrewed the cap, and tried to dump the contents on the glowing edges of the carpet, but couldn't fit the bottle under the seat. I tried pouring the water into my hand, but there just wasn't enough room for maneuverability. Somehow, though, I managed to soak some of the papers and stifle the flames. The thick, plastic-smelling reek began to clear, and Brian finally managed to work the latch and hauled me out by the ankles into the relatively fresh air along the side of the highway.

We sat on the berm looking down at the car for a long time, making sure the smoke didn't start up again, and watching for emergency vehicles. Four cops passed us, and didn't notice three smoke-streaked college guys with panic-stricken eyes sitting there on the side of the highway.

Then, since these tragedies happen in threes, Brian asked, "Where are my keys?"

After a brief search of the car, he looked down at the road... And saw there, eight feet down in the only sewer grate for ten miles, the glint of metal from his keys. There was nothing that could be done, but pile back into our illegal firetrap and make our way north.

By the time we got to Brian's place, we were dirty and desperate. We only wanted a drink, and a soft couch to collapse into. My plan was to crash there and call my folks for a ride in the morning.

Except that we couldn't get into the house. Brian's parents were gone, the house was dark, and not one car sat in the driveway. We just looked at each other for a long minute. Both of us were probably thinking the same thing: This will be funny in a few years.

Fortunately, we didn't get caught breaking into his house, since I was supposed to be staying out of trouble.

Next: Six Little Words