Thursday, January 31, 2008

War, Literature & the Arts

I think I'm back. Still burning the candle at both ends, but maybe the torch has pulled away from the center.

Today, I want to invite those of you who might be interested in the peculiar conjunction suggested by the title of this post to visit another blog and the journal it serves. This post's title is italicized because it's also the title of a peer-reviewed "International Journal of the Humanities," published by the Department of English & Fine Arts at the USAF Academy. The journal itself, WLA for short, celebrated its 15th anniversary just as I was returning to the faculty (which I have since departed) almost four years ago.

Several weeks ago, the journal's webmaster approached me about creating and editing a blog that would complement the journal. On Monday, just over a week ago, that blog went public. I don't think finding material appropriate to such a venue is going to be a problem. Finding the time to post it may be another matter.

At any rate, feel free to drop in sometime and see what it's all about.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Palm Desktop 6.2: Moving Backwards

If you're not a Palm user, you can skip this post. I'm going to vent. If you do use a Palm, or if you're a software developer of any sort, read on.

Here is a rule, a law, a commandment: Updated versions of software, any software, should never possess fewer capabilities than the older versions. To do so is a version of intellectual and programming laziness that is unforgivable. Period.

I try to keep my software up-to-date. Consequently, I installed Palm Desktop 6.2.2 by Access on one of my computers today. Tomorrow, I will uninstall it. Color-coding for calendar categories is a basic feature. Gone. What idiot thought that would be okay? Birthdays from Contacts appearing automatically in the Calendar? Gone. And I'm not alone in lamenting this. Here's a sampling from the Palm Support Forum (and keep in mind this software has been out about a week, I think):

Why don't you include the color coding for calendar with this? Don't ruin the good thing, please.
Version 6.2.2 "Palm Desktop by ACCESS" is so drastically different than former versions of Palm Desktop, including the beta, that I am shocked. The product has de-evloved. I was hoping the device would start to take on features of the desktop. Instead the classic palm interface appears like a blurry monotone blue. I can't sort contacts by first name. Much more. Very disappointed. Even as a long time Palm user (10 years from Palm III) the iPhone is starting to look very appealing. Hope you are planning to fix it and that current release was a necessary evil.
why did you get rid of birthdays? one of the best calendar features.... b/c of that, I'm staying away.
How hard can this be? Someone should be fired. Period.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Just World Theory: Two Views

"The arc of the moral universe is indeed long but it does bend toward justice." --Cormac McCarthy, The Stonemason.
>-) Doc

"Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated"

I'll borrow from Mark Twain and beg your patience another night yet. Much to say about many things, but more important things to say in more private venues, as it has been for a week. Only so many hours in a day and I am stealing from the beauty sleep God knows I need with every stroke of a key, yet weighty things are afoot, just not in this space. Bear with me yet another day I pray. And if I cannot think, then at least I'll link.

Monday, January 21, 2008

All Grown Up: Always, Never, It Depends

Sunday's post was crafted from a post over at The Archer Pelican and my comment to it. Seems only appropriate to pair it, a day later, with an inversion of that genesis: a full post crafted from Phil's comment here. Confused yet? Simply put, Phil posted a long and thoughtful comment here--too long and thoughtful to let languish in the comments bin, where those who read this blog by e-mail subscription might miss it. Further, it invites an equally thoughtful answer, because it touches on a phenomenon I've given considerable thought over the years.

So, to open, here is Phil's comment from yesterday (I should also point out that Phil, sojourning in Mexico for the next few months, expands on his experiences there over at his own place, and if yesterday's post is any indication, I for one am looking forward to both the experiences he relates and to the deeper reflections they inspire):

Greetings from Merida MX, where I'm spending my first evening at the ultra-cheap apartment that will be "home" for the next few weeks. For the five previous evenings, I've been at the Nomadas Hostel -- in the company of people from ~12 different countries, ages 20 to 65.

A German 40-something commented that the 20-somethings touring the world for two months at 3 days per stop are simply taking an intensive course on how to misunderstand many different cultures. She may be right. But they are learning other things, too. Sometimes on their parents' dime (or Euro), sometimes on their own.

But to return to your original subject: two nights ago I was walking with two 60-something American women who were telling me about their own prosperous but troubled childhoods. The former deb from Philadelphia lived her entire childhood and much of her grown life living by her mother's rules and hating it. She knew she didn't want to raise her children in the same way, but some of it still happened. She's close now to one of her 40-something kids, but not to the other.

The Junior Leaguer's daughter from Texas never played by her mother's rules, though she inherited her mother's love for alcohol. Her only childhood memories of her mother's gentleness were from the times she was sick. Her mother would stroke her hair and give her some comfort and attention. Decades later when the mother was nearly dead, suffering from dementia and OCD/anxiety, the daughter remembered her childhood comforts and did the same for her mother -- stroking her hair and speaking gently. In those moments of the daughter's loving, the mother had her own few moments of lucidity and calm. "Good," she said. "Nice."

As for the kind daughter's own girls, they are also in their 40s, and are generally doing alright. All three generations have had their struggles with alcohol and drugs. But one thing different is that the younger two generations love each other actively and much, with few rules except for the one that says, "we will always hope for each other's good welfare."

When do we start seeing our children and their cohort as adults (and perhaps as "fellow humans")? Is it when we watch them acting like adults with each other? Or is it when we expect them to act like adults for us? Or maybe when we finally *let* them act like adults with us?

Working in mid-sized engineering firms throughout my 20s, I almost never worked with anyone younger than I who was also smarter and/or more knowledgeable. In my late 30s, I finally started meeting a lot of workmates in their late 20s or early 30s who actually had plenty of content-area knowledge (and sometimes also just plain brainpower) exceeding my own. It was honestly fun to start leaning on them for expertise.

Soon enough, it's going to start happening with my kids' friends. I'm glad to say that I'm looking forward to the change, not dreading it.

Oh, and to remember the other theme of the original post, I will do my best to hint nicely to the lucky kids just how good a job their parents have done. And I will do my best to be helpful to the kids whose parents aren't doing so well.
The paragraph I want to concentrate on is that fourth one up and that very interesting question: "When do we start seeing our children and their cohort as adults (and perhaps as 'fellow humans')?" It's a good question, when it has to be asked. The ideal answer may well be, "Always, never, and it depends."


Always, because from infancy, my daughters' mother and I have tried to speak to our children as adults. "Because I said so," has not been in our repertoire. More than once, I expect, my children have probably wished it had been. That sort of arbitrary (on the surface) invocation of parental authority is easier to rebel against than the sort of careful reasoning and explanation my daughters were likely to encounter. When the youngest repeatedly questioned our unwavering prohibition of either child ever climbing onto a trampoline without us present (and once ignored that prohibition, proving that "the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice" by bouncing into view over her friend's backyard fence just as her mother happened to be stopped at a light on the other side of said fence), my answer was to print more information from the internet on the dangers of trampolines than any eight-year-old should really be subjected to. Really, "because we said so," probably would have been sufficient.

They are likely, those young charges, if they read this, to object that the sarcasm with which they were sometimes reminded of undone chores or rules of common civility violated was hardly "treating them like adults." And yet, it was. The employment of sarcasm assumes that the person spoken to knows and understands the issues at hand. Sarcasm is lost on the uninformed or uncomprehending. So, that I ever employed sarcasm was really a sign that I credited them with knowing better in the first place. Still, it's a mode of address I wish I'd used less often on the whole.

Nor can I remember there ever being a time when they were relegated to a "kid's table." From the days of the high chair on, they not only ate at the table when we had guests, but they were not discouraged from joining the conversation. The result was that, more than once, they earned the incredulity of some adults by the facility with which they could carry on an "adult" conversation. As those dinner guests were, more often than not, fellow professors, my oldest daughter, now in her first year of college, is wonderfully unintimidated by her teachers.

Now, more than ever, I converse with my daughters in this way, about so many things that my parents never discussed with me. I don't expect them to treat the things I say with the same veneration as the words of Moses just returned from the mount. But, I do want them to have a starting point for a deeper perception of many things. There are some lessons that must be learned "the hard way," but there are many I think I might have been spared if my own parents had been more open with me about some of their mistakes and regrets. If, by being carefully honest with my children, I can spare them some of those pains in their own lives, then I feel I owe them that.


And yet, our children will always be our children, however mature they may be in intellect or age. And though we may treat them as adults, and we may recognize that their burdens and concerns are not so much unlike our own, still, there is within us (I hope) that feeling of obligation to shield and nurture. That they may no longer need nor want such protection is beside the point. And this eternal stewardship that bears no relation to chronological age is something they may never understand . . . until they have children of their own.

It Depends

And that brings me to the balance point where Phil's question really seeded the clouds of memory. As important a transformation as seeing our children as adults is, equally important is that day when they see us as human as well, not as infallible nor supremely confident nor fearless nor asexual, but simply human--struggling from day to day to get it right just like them, and as worried about what our children think of us as they are about what we think of them.

In judging the threshold of that awareness, I have nothing but my own perception of my own father and mother to go on. The key, I think, may be our arrival at an age that matches our first real memories of our own parents. And more important than reaching that age may be reaching it with awareness of reaching it. I was 29 when my oldest daughter was born--two years older than my father was when I entered this world. But I have no memory of him at that age. It wasn't until my early thirties, when I could remember my father in his own early to mid thirties, that I began, not infrequently, to perform a little mental exercise. I began to compare my own experiences and emotions to his, and to try to project myself into his grown up place in those memories whose neural storage units were formed in that child's mind. How would I feel, now, at this age which he was then, in that circumstance.

It has always been an interesting exercise, and rewarding. Each time, it has allowed me to see my father in new ways, to understand that this larger than life figure whom I had (and still do) idolized in so many ways was really just a man after all. That he was an exceptional man, I never lost sight of, but just how exceptional became all the more clear as I began to reach milestones in my own age that also marked milestones in his.

Around the age of 35, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be the principal creator and Chief of a volunteer fire department and rescue squad that really set the bar for such an organization, in our county and beyond. I could remember the arrival of the first pumper, the celebration around it, parked for the afternoon under the century-old pecan tree in our back yard. I remember thinking (as an adult looking back) what a huge responsibility he had, and how well he executed it. I was filled with even more admiration for his skills as a diplomat, his ability to lead without alienating and without letting the power of being in a leadership position go to his head.

Some five years ago, I was equally conscious of reaching the age my father was when my mother left our home. A couple years after that, during a Parent's Weekend at the college where I taught, I remembered that I was the age then that he had been when he came out for my own Parent's Weekend. He had seemed old then. He was, after all, my father. But, looking back, and thinking, He was then the age I am now, I could only think how young he was.

The point of all this, as the subtitle implies, is it depends. The age at which we can begin to think of our own parents as real people (if the operative mechanism I propose is really the key to such a thing) may depend, not on our age, but on the age they were when we came into this world. If that holds, then maybe the converse is true. Our ability to think of our own children as adults may depend, somewhat, on our age when they were born.

Then again, I don't really think so. At any age they are, we have already been that age, and with a little effort, we can remember how grown up we always thought we were. If we work at it, that's an exercise that can help us see both ourselves and them more clearly.

When do we begin to see them as adults? Always, never, it depends. The more we do though, the more I expect they will return the favor and see us, not just as "rents," but as people--the unique people linked to them in this lifetime by blood and by a love that no words can ever really explain.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Conroy's My Losing Season

During part of a long conversation by a fire pit this past Thursday night, a fine cigar in one hand, a glass of The Macallan somewhere near the other, we were joined by my friend's youngest son. The maturity of our own children tends to sneak up on us because we see them every day. It's like our own age--we don't notice ourselves growing older, but look around at a class reunion and you end up praying that you don't look as "mature" as all your classmates. You do. Likewise, my own youngest daughter hasn't been a little girl for quite some time, but I gained a new appreciation for just how much of a young woman she's become through my time spent in conversation with my friend's son, who's very much a young man. The last opportunity I had to visit my friend in his home, this same young man was but a gleam in his father's eye.

At some point, in a bit of conversation that almost certainly left an indelible impression that I was a pontificating ass, I mentioned to the young man that he would never really understand how special his own family was until he was away at college and had heard from others the nature of the families in which they had grown up. I could be wrong of course. Perhaps he knows already that his own family is far nearer the ideal than 90% of his friends' or acquaintances' ever will be. I was speaking, of course, from my own experience with the dawning of that realization and being as guilty as ever of generalizing from it to that of others, blissfully oblivious that the futility of such generalization was the very point I was trying to make. (There is an old saying that, "We teach best what we most need to learn.")

In attempting to illustrate the point, I made reference to the particular case of a young lady who entered with my class at the academy, but who upon leaving, had no home to return to. Tonight, as I was reviewing some old posts and the links within them, I found that I had elaborated upon that very example in a comment to an August 7, 2007, post at The Archer Pelican. While I would normally let the link in that last sentence carry the day and not think of importing, virtually whole hog, both the bulk of my friend Phil's original post and all of my own comment, the topicality of that exchange to Thursday night's conversation prompts me to make an exception.

For the most part, other than noting the sadness inherent in recognizing that My Losing Season is not a work of fiction and also providing a link to Terry Gross's 2003 interview with Pat Conroy, Phil let Conroy's work speak for itself.

Pat Conroy calls home from the Citadel, collect:

"Don't make this a habit, young man. You know this family isn't made of money. How you're first couple of weeks in college going? You having a ball?"

I began weeping and couldn't stop. I'd suffered a mild breakdown of spirit and character as I lost grip on all the words I'd planned to say to my mother. For thirty seconds I sobbed until I could gain control. "Mom, you sent me a torture chamber," I gasped out finally.

"Well, it'll be good for you. It'll make a man out of you."

"It'll make a man like Dad out of me," I snapped back.

"Just how bad is it?" Mom asked. "Give me an example."

"It's worse than Dad--that's how bad it is. I'd much rather be living with Dad than going to this school."

After a long pause, my mother said, "Oh, my God."

Then my father took the phone, and I heard his despised, mocking voice. "It sounds like my little baby boy's having some boo-hoo time with Mommy. If baby boy wants to do some whining he can talk to Daddy-poo."

"I don't like the Citadel, Dad," I said, controlling the quaver in my voice. "I'm thinking about coming home."

I heard my father's laughter, then the hardening of his voice as he asked, "Where's home, son? You no longer have a home." He hung up before I could talk to my brothers or sisters.
And my response to that post made use of the same example that I alluded to on Thursday night, in trying, probably unnecessarily, to heighten my friend's son's awareness of just how exceptional a father he had. Likely enough, he already knows.
My own father's last words to me before I walked across tarmac to climb exterior stairs to a plane at Charlotte International Airport enroute to my induction at the US Air Force Academy were, "If you don't like it there, son, you can always come home." In many ways, that made either staying at or leaving a place for which my affection has steadily diminished since day one a more difficult decision whichever way it went, because it made it all mine. It was my idea to go, my decision to stay. Leaving would have been no disgrace, no great act of defiance. Staying was no vicarious fulfillment of anyone else's dream nor any expected compliance with any family tradition. It was, mostly, inertia.

But, by the time I left, I was keenly aware that not all my classmates were so paternally blessed. One girl I knew (mine was the second class with women) told me in a hallway during finals after our first year that this would be her last semester. I was surprised to learn that she would be staying in Colorado Springs after outprocessing rather than returning to Hawaii. "I can't," she said. "I have nowhere to go. My father told me that if I left the Academy, I had damned well better not come home." Another classmate, I dated years after she had also left that same summer. She was working to put herself through school. "My father told me that if I would just try the Academy for one year, that if I didn't like it, he would pay for my college elsewhere. Well, I didn't like it, but when I left he said, 'If you're going to throw away a free education, surely you don't expect me to pay for one.'"

Free. We used to refer to it as "a two hundred fifty thousand dollar education crammed up your ass a nickel at a time."

Conroy's experience resonates because it is far from unique. What makes people love a writer, is that he or she thinks or feels what the reader feels, but can express it far better.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

"The Friend of Your Youth," Revisited

Back on 30 August, the seventh anniversary of the passing of the best friend I made during three years of high school, my post was primarily a meditation on friendship, but it also included the text of the eulogy I read at my friend's funeral. Only two paragraphs into that remembrance, I leaned on a quote from All the Kings Men, by Robert Penn Warren, to help me explain the special bond that we shared:

The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will every have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name--Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave--which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night . . . the Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you any more.
I find myself now forced to reconsider the appropriateness of those words. I pointed out, even then, that they were only partly true--that Randall and I never really became strangers to one another. I now recognize that the phenomenon I have in mind when I consider Randall, and a grand total of about three other men I know (and two women), is a thing completely different from Warren's "Friend of Your Youth." What it shares with Warren's concept is that backdrop of shared youthful experiences, trials, and growth that no later bonds can encompass or sometimes even comprehend. Where it departs from Warren is in the depth of connection I have in mind. A better explanation of that facet was captured in one of my favorite quotes from Richard Bach's, Illusions: "Your friend will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintance will know you in a thousand years." Occasionally, rarely, for some even never, one finds those two concepts conflating. I have had a blessed life. Oh, there have been trials, disasters even, nearly always of my own causing, but I have friends, more than one, where those two descriptions meet.

Perhaps the best way of explaining what that means is to dwell for a moment on the principal quality of reunions with such friends. The predominant theme of Warren's concept seems to be a sort of tolerance--a polite humoring of "the drooling doddering confusion of the universe." And, now that I recognize that, I find myself feeling sad for Warren, especially if he believed what he wrote (and all the "unreliable narrators" in the world can never fully enable one to do otherwise). Bach, on the other hand, seems to recognize that your true friend is that person from whom estrangement is never really possible, even before you have met. That is the sort of friend Randall was.

The hallmark of such a friendship is that polite tolerance never enters the picture, nor would the words "boring," nor "not too happily met" ever come into play. Reunion with such a friend is more like coming back together with a piece of yourself that you had forgotten was missing. You feel suddenly whole again. These are the friends who, from the moment you met, at whatever age, saw within you some essential self that transcends all the masks we wear for the world: father, lover, spouse, commander, teacher, student, citizen. We all are many different people at different times, but within us all is something that infuses, informs and animates all those other selves.

Essentially, what occurs with such friends is an inversion of Ahab's mission in his quest for Moby Dick. In chapter 36, Ahab explains, somewhat, his hatred of Moby Dick to Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” (Melville was not happy with God, in whatever form he conceived Him, and Ahab here is Melville's spokesman.) The friendships I have in mind, turn this entire dynamic on its head. Perhaps the first requirement for such a friendship is that both parties begin with a more charitable view of the Almighty Himself, or of whatever Force they credit for pervading the universe and all life in it. Because what such friends see in us, celebrate in us, treasure in us is that thing which is inscrutable to others, but which they see clearly, without needing to strike through any mask. And that thing is unchanging, even when we ourselves lose touch with it or forget its nature. The joy that we feel in the company of our true friends originates in the role they play in facilitating the emergence of that best self. And the overwhelming joy we feel in reunion with those friends after lengthy separation is, in some ways, as much a joy at reunion with ourselves as with them.

In its literal translation, the Sanskrit word Namasté means, "I bow to you," but in its widely accepted and richer connotations, the expression has come to encompass much more, one version of which is, "The Divinity within me perceives and adores the Divinity within you." That is a lot to claim of most instances when it is passed between people on meeting or parting, as it is frequently in some communities, especially those who practice yoga for instance. It is then, I think, more a statement of an idealized goal, an aspiration, than a statement of fact. But between the sort of friends I have in mind, it is more or less the perfect word, for it captures, I think, exactly the essence of that bond.

And so, to my friends as a statement of fact, and to my acquaintances as a longed for goal . . . Namasté.

Postscript: As with every really decent contemplation I post here, this one too is inspired by life. I spent the last few days in Montgomery, Alabama. We flew there with the intention of parachuting into the graduation parade for a class of freshly minted Air Force lieutenants, but on both the day of the practice and the day of the parade, a cloud layer less than a thousand feet thick from top to bottom parked itself over the intended drop zone. At 2000 ft above the ground, we were just below the clouds, but too low to exit and safely open. At 3000 ft above the ground, the sky was blue for miles as we skimmed along the tops of that cloud layer, unable to see more than brief glimpses of the ground. So, a couple of hours in the air, all dressed up, and no place to go. But the trip was far from a total loss. We pinned a medal on the graduate for whom we had made the trip--a former enlisted staff member of our squadron. And I spent two evenings, the first in 16 years, in the company of one of those rarest of friends, in whose company I have always had the honor of truly perceiving the Divinity in another, and through him, within myself.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"That's just ice from the props"

In the dark, in the weather, on our way to Alabama for a demo jump, flying as high as we could without everyone needing to go on oxygen, I kept hearing slapping noises I'd never heard before on the outside of the aircraft. I turned to another pilot sitting in the rear of the plane with me.

"Dawg, what the hell is that sound?"

"Nothing to worry about, Doc, that's just ice from the prop blades getting slung against the sides of the plane. There's an extra sheet of metal in that section of the fuselage just for that."

Thankfully, the Twin Otter has excellent de-icing systems. I've just never had the experience of depending on them before. I never tire of this job. Always something new.

Blogging may be light for the next few days. On the road for a jump demo in Alabama, and spending some time with an old friend--the best I made in four years at a college far from home. Last saw one another at our ten-year reunion, over 16 years ago. Renewed contact this past summer. Picked up the thread tonight as if no time had ever passed since our starlit walks of old. The people in one's life with whom that's possible are rare indeed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Five Easy Pieces, Gunther Toody Style

To be completely honest, I don't know that I remember a single thing about the rest of this movie. To be even more honest, having just watched the trailer to jog my memory, I don't really believe I've ever seen Five Easy Pieces in its entirety. I will see it soon though--not because of all the awards it was nominated for, but because Buck recommended it, and I've yet to be steered wrong by most of my blogging friends (we'll just pretend Idiocracy never happened, Barry). But somewhere along the line, quite some time ago, before there was a YouTube, I did see the diner scene, and I remembered it.

I remembered it well enough to employ it one morning a couple of months ago when I woke up on a weekend craving biscuits and gravy. I make a pretty mean gravy. Mean enough that I'd rather make it myself and just have it on toast than order it out. But the "uncured" bacon in my fridge had become rather furry, so I headed out to Gunther Toody's. Unfortunately, I arrived about five minutes past eleven, just outside breakfast hours. Problem.

"Sorry. Biscuits and gravy is a breakfast item and we just stopped serving breakfast," said Toby.

"Really?" Jack Nicholson to the rescue. Without hesitation, I said, "Tell you what. Can I order a side of biscuits?"


"And you serve Elvis Fries all day, right? Aren't they smothered in gravy?"


"Okay, bring me a side of biscuits and an order of Elvis Fries, except bring the gravy on the side. Can you do that. Or, if you really want to be a pal, put that in as the order and charge me for it, but put the biscuits on a plate and pour the gravy over the biscuits."

The kid just grinned at me. "You got it, sir." He'd never seen the movie. I asked. So, he thought I was a genius, and I just tried not to shatter the illusion. He brought me the biggest plate of biscuits and gravy I've ever tried to eat.

It didn't work out so well for Jack Nicholson's character, but that scene has to be one of the all time classic examples of thinking outside the box. I clearly never forgot it. Thanks Jack.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Bucket List

I saw an enjoyable movie today. The Bucket List might have been a great movie, but for Hollywood's inexplicable inability to resist being stupid from time to time. The opening third, including all of the hospital scenes, was generally realistic and outstanding. Great interaction between Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Solid casting. And the final lap and sprint to the finish line was equally touching. Guys, be ready with the tissues if you take a date. As an exploration of relationships and male bonding, these parts of the movie get an A.

Then there's that disappointing middle. Just forget about "willing suspension of disbelief." It won't really matter how willing you are. The result is that you'll find yourself sort of cringing and hoping that the stupidity doesn't last long so that you can get back to the decent parts of the script. It's pretty clear that even the two principals knew those scenes were stupid, but got through them by reminding themselves, "It's okay . . . they pay me to act, not screenwrite."

Don't get me wrong. It's great that they went skydiving. I won't bore you by listing all the unrealities in that scene (at least they're not as bad as Point Break). I'll just say they were unnecessary. They didn't get enough laughs to make it worth the departure from an otherwise very real tale. Same for driving the cars. Great that they did that. But a man does not caress a cherry Shelby GT like a prom date one minute and then start playing demolition derby with it the next. Surely even Morgan Freeman choked on that when he read it. And what the hell is up with Morgan's frippin' heartplug straight out of Dune? A chest catheter that leaks blood all over his shirt front? And this, days or weeks after he went skydiving? Right.

But those breaches of good sense don't make it not worth seeing. They knock the overall grade down to a B- at best, and they give the movie something of a split personality, as if someone spliced together a really good script like Something's Gotta Give with some silly Ben Stiller film. But the beginning and end, when Nicholson and Freeman get to act and develop their characters, make it worth the time, and make you wish for screenwriters above the age of 16. All in all, there are worse ways to while away two hours of your life. Much worse.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Enrevanche has been my catalyst today.

Along with his post about the Obama e-mails, Barry also posted this enlightening piece with an excerpt from and links to an article suggesting that Gospel music has its roots, not in Africa, but in the Hebrides.

And all along I thought I just liked it because it was great music. Now I learn it's really because both it and I are Scottish at heart.

Here's a tangential memory that began in the comment section of Enrevanche, but on further reflection seems worthy a place of its own:

When I was a cadet, some three decades ago now, the Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell and Head of her Majesty's Household in Scotland, came to visit my alma mater. All the cadets with that worthy surname were assembled to meet him (and given detailed tutelage on the proper decorum for doing so) one afternoon on the Chapel Wall. There were about nine of us, as I recall. I also recall a rather distinct pause and moment of hesitation (probably not proper decorum under the circumstances) when His Grace realized that some four of the nine of us bore skin darker than Italian coffee. It amused me. I doubt it amused my darker comrades, and rightly so. That moment, like Gospel music we're now told, was one more legacy of slave owning Scots.

(For what it's worth, "Cruachan!" at least according to Wikipedia, is the slogan of the Clan Campbell.)

Barack Obama E-mail

From the "Great Minds Think Alike" category.

I began this post three days ago. Collected most of the links and wrote part of the text and then decided I should count to ten. I'm only up to about eight, but today, over at Enrevanche, Barry scooped me. Only he's being nicer than I intend to be. But then, I get the impression he's writing to a woman of our mothers' generation--someone for whom the internet may well still be rather mysterious. Consequently, Barry was tactful.

I probably won't be. Different audience here. Okay, technically much the same audience really, but Barry's electing to let his tactful letter to someone outside this audience speak to you. I intend to get in your face. Not all of you. Many of you, most I pray, will read this and simply nod your heads north and south and be glad that I said it. Because, if you are savvy enough to be reading a blog, you're probably savvy enough to recognize digital bullshit when you see it or read it. What you probably do when you get those annoying smear-mails about a current candidate--any candidate--is delete them and make a mental note that the sender may just be an idiot after all. This post will give you another option. As a bookend to Barry's polite e-mail turned into a post, here will be a probably too straightforward post that you can e-mail using the button below. With luck, I'll say what you would have liked to say, but better. Or maybe not.

This post is not for those of you behaving well, nor is it for those like Barry's mom's friend, who don't know any better. This is for those who should know better, but for whatever reason (and I can think of a few) elect to forward electronic horse manure nonetheless.

Right up front, let's get something clear. This isn't an endorsement of any political candidate. Although it has a candidate's name as title, and although I'm going to talk about that candidate a little, this post is not so much about the candidate as about the yahoos who are passing around one or more select e-mails about the candidate. Here is the e-mail I received, I am sad to say, from more than one source:
If you do not ever forward anything else, please forward this to all your contacts...this is very scary to think of what lies ahead of us here in our own United States...better heed this and pray about it and share it.

We checked this out on "". It is factual. Check for yourself.

Who is Barack Obama?

Probable U. S. presidential candidate, Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., a black MUSLIM from Nyangoma-Kogel, Kenya and Ann Dunham, a white ATHEIST from Wichita, Kansas. Obama's parents met at the University of Hawaii.

When Obama was two years old, his parents divorced. His father returned to Kenya . His mother then married Lolo Soetoro, a RADICAL Muslim from Indonesia. When Obama was 6 years old, the family relocated to Indonesia . Obama attended a MUSLIM school in Jakarta . He also spent two years in a Catholic school.

Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim. He is quick to point out that, "He was once a Muslim, but that he also attended Catholic school." Obama's political handlers are attempting to make it appear that he is not a radical.

Obama's introduction to Islam came via his father, and this influence was temporary at best. In reality, the senior Obama returned to Kenya soon after the divorce, and never again had any direct influence over his son's education.

Lolo Soetoro, the second husband of Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, introduced his stepson to Islam. Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the RADICAL teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world. Since it is politically expedient to be a CHRISTIAN when seeking major public office in the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background. ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Koran.

Barack Hussein Obama will NOT recite the Pledge of Allegiance nor will he show any reverence for our flag. While others place their hands over their hearts, Obama turns his back to the flag and slouches.

Let us all remain alert concerning Obama's expected presidential candidacy.

The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level - through the President of the United States , one of their own!!!!
This, folks, is the sort of crap that keeps good men from running for office. While I can't provide a specific citation for it at the moment, my understanding has always been that one reason Colin Powell elected not to run for public office, despite sufficient popularity with the American people to have made him an even more likely candidate than Obama to be the first African-American US president, was to avoid subjecting his family, his wife in particular, to the outrage of hearing such slander about the finest man they knew.

So, what of the e-mail above about Barack Obama? How much is true? Well, one part that is certainly not true is the claim to have checked it out on If you go here, you will find a page with links to information about each of the more inflammatory claims circulating in a variety of e-mails about Obama. The one truth of which people will make too much is that he doesn't necessarily always place his hand over his heart during the national anthem. A separate page at Snopes discusses that fact in detail. Look around people! The next time you're at a ball game or a race. This is an oversight that pisses me off on a regular basis, but ignorance of US Flag Code is not the same thing as being a closet terrorist. (In reality, a few of those good ole boys at the race probably are closet anarchists who would gladly get in line for the first shot at Obama with a sniper rifle if he's elected, but that's why we have a Secret Service Presidential Detail.)

My point is this: really is a reasonably reliable place to debunk this sort of e-mail before you make an ass of yourself by forwarding it. The same goes for those virus warnings that come in with a message urging you to forward it to everyone you know. People, if you do, you become the virus. Snopes has a page for validating those warnings as well. I usually just delete either variety of e-mail (along with promises of blessings and riches beyond my wildest dreams), but I don't forget from whence they came. You lose points with me, big time, if you are the sort of person who should know better, because I figure you do. I give you that much credit. I surmise, when you forward messages of this ilk, you do so with full awareness that it's garbage, but you don't like the candidate anyway and deem all fair in love, war, and politics. Please don't. Not if you want to be my friend. My friends and I don't roll like that.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Wire

And, of course, The Wire is the Best. TV. Show. Ever.
A quick post tonight then off to catch up on some zzzz's with a prayer for good weather in the morning. (I've not hung suspended between earth and a little zero-porosity fabric since November and it's starting to show in my disposition.)

So, just a quick nod to a show I've not seen the first episode of yet. But I'm a great believer in word of mouth, from movies to books to blogs to TV. Deadwood I stumbled into on my own and then went proselytizing. The Wire, on the other hand, I'll begin shortly, because like Once, it comes highly recommended by men whose taste I've learned to trust.

That said, I invite you to peruse two posts over at Enrevanche. There is this one, from which the epigraph above is taken. And, if, like me, you will be new to The Wire this season, there is a brilliant four minute summary of the first four seasons to be had here.

So, now that Barry has done the hard work, and I've pointed you in the right direction. I'm off to bed.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Forgiveness is Always Easier to Obtain than Permission

Some rules, you remember the learning of.

It was the spring of 1978. I was a freshman (doolie, SMACK, WAD, maggot) at an alleged institution of higher learning nestled into the foot of the Rockies, just northwest of Colorado Springs. This was back before the "Welcome to Colorado Springs" sign had migrated 10 miles north up I-25 and housing developments had enveloped the airfield in a classic pincer movement aided by offering new buyers a hardwired hotline to the college's public affairs department so they could whine about the noise of the airplanes overhead each day.

It was spring and I was young and so was Bob Hope--at least compared to the age he would finally reach before the world was deprived of that magical smile. In truth, he was already much older then than I am now. Not important. What is important is that he was visiting our school. He was visiting our school and he was going to attend a parade (yeah, that kind of school) as the guest of honor. Whether it was the daily march to lunch or some special parade later in the afternoon I can't remember. Not important.

What I remember is this: the seniors in my squadron hatched a brilliant plan for a prank that Bob Hope would have remembered for the rest of his life with a smile. It would have been legendary. Cadets would have spoken of it to this day. But . . . those otherwise brilliantly creative seniors did the unforgivable--they asked "permission."

Here was the plan. The center of campus is a large open square, about 1,000 feet along each side, bordered on the west by the chapel, the east by the academic building, and north and south by the dorms. Our squadron was in the south dorm and formed up for the march on the south side of that giant square. The reviewing platform, with guest of honor Bob Hope, was erected at the base of the chapel wall, along the western edge of that square. The 20 squadrons formed on the north side would begin by marching west, then turning south to pass in review in front of Mr. Hope. No real opportunity for pranks. But our squadron, and the other 19 in our group, would begin by marching to the east, then north, then west, then finally south to pass in front of the reviewing party. What we knew was that there would be a pause for timing for maybe a minute or more somewhere along that north edge, next to the northern cadet dorm.

The plan was this: during that pause, several members of our squadron would emerge from the dorm with laundry bags full of Texaco hats and arms full of golf clubs. They would dash to our momentarily stationary squadron and trade those accouterments for the wheel caps and sabres of the seniors in the command rank and final rank. The "eyes right" in front of the viewing stand would greet Mr. Hope with a front row full of Texaco hats and golf clubs. It was a frippin' brilliant idea. Legendary. It could have been my greatest claim to fame in an entire four-year career.

But the squadron commander, a senior cadet, asked permission. Permission!! That might not have been a tragedy, but the major who was our squadron's Air Officer Commanding (AOC) was going places (upward) I think, and so rather than approving the move and becoming a part of the legend, he asked permission of the group AOC, a lieutenant colonel. The lieutenant colonel said "No."

I remember well the conversations, even among the freshmen, about the cost vs benefit of disobeying that direct verbal order to abort that proto-legendary spirit mission and then enlisting Mr. Hope in our appeals for clemency. But we didn't. And what Mr. Hope saw that day as our squadron passed in review was nothing special at all. Nothing to distinguish us from 40 other squadron that rendered honors passing under his gaze that day. Nothing to distinguish that parade from a hundred other such parades that great entertainer beheld in that long lifetime. Nothing by which he would have remembered our squadron and that parade as something extraordinary until the day, many, many years later when he died.

Within a day I had heard that phrase for the first time from instructors in my classes who immediately lauded the brilliance and simplicity of the plan and lambasted everyone in the chain of command that had disapproved it, from the Lt Colonel at the top to everyone down the chain who was dumb enough to ask. "Forgiveness is always easier to obtain than permission," they explained. Then they would close with the other great truth that has served me well through over 31 years in uniform: "If you can't stand the answer, don't ask the question."

Why do I remember those lessons so well? Because Bob Hope went to his grave with no reason whatsoever to remember that parade, our squadron. Because of its very normalcy, its exceeding excellence at being the embodiment of the nondescript, I will never forget it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Monday, January 7, 2008

Once, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

[Bumped and updated with clips from YouTube.]

Music is a theme we repeatedly return to here at They Rode On. Movies too. Occasionally, the two merge. The movie Once is one such instance. I might have missed it, but for a recommendation from fellow aviator and blogger, Lex.

I've said before that Adagio for Strings may be the saddest piece of music I know. There's a new contender for that title. "Falling Slowly," from this movie has an effect I can't really explain. It's not even the words. It happens every time that chord change comes leading into the chorus. Waves of almost overwhelming sadness. All in all, that's a pretty interesting accomplishment. Also worth adding to your playlists if you subscribe to any online music service that will allow you to listen to tracks you may not own are "When Your Mind's Made Up" and "Lies." There's a good write up on the artists, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, at Wikipedia.

"Falling Slowly":


"When Your Mind's Made Up":

The movie is wonderful. There's really nothing about it not to like (with the possible exception of some rather interesting cinematography wherein the image of the central subject is steady in the frame, but everything in the periphery jumps around in a way that makes you wonder if there's something wrong with your vision--you get used to it, but I'm not sure it really adds anything to the film). It's a movie about nice people, doing the right things, and having good things happen to them. If that sounds boring, then go rent something from Hollywood where affairs, betrayal, murder, bitterness and everything despicable in human nature is the norm (and if all of that wrapped up in one neat package appeals to you, then see Before the Devil Knows You're Dead--just get your affairs in order first).

For this film though, just throw a log on the fire, grab a blanket and a snuggle partner, and enjoy. Even though it may not end the way you want it to, one could make the argument that it ends even better--it ends the way it should. (And if it helps, you can always take consolation in real life, where the on-screen chemistry between Hansard and Irglová (according to Wikipedia) continues to this day.)

Doc's grade: a solid A.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

2007 Word of the Year

An AP article in today's paper, in what seems an appropriate bookend to last week's announcement of banished words for 2008, announced the American Dialect Society's selection for 2007 Word of the Year: "Subprime."

Of course, the thing that I found most interesting about the AP article itself was that it didn't make it past the second sentence without using one of the words from last week's roster of the banished:

The group of wordsmiths chose “subprime” as 2007’s Word of the Year at its annual convention Friday.
That had to be intentional.

Also worth perusing is the list of nominees for word of the year. Especially useful to me, from the category of "Most Unnecessary" was Vegansexual: "A person who eats no meat, uses no animal-derived goods, and who prefers not to have sex with non-vegans." And I now understand how I, my unashamedly omnivorous self, became unnecessary.

"He who laughs, lasts." --from The Chaplain's Guide to Surviving Basic Cadet Training (1977).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Andy Olmsted

All day yesterday and not a post. Today I've been away from the computer and will be again in minutes, but I want to post a link.

A long-time blogger was killed in Iraq this week. Home was apparently here, in the same town where I live. I would have liked to meet him someday. Now that will never happen. But Andy Olmsted left a post with a friend for just such an event. And sad as it is, the post is worth reading. Few of the good men and women who have given their lives in war have taken advantage of such an opportunity to leave behind words to speak for them in their absence.

It's worth taking the time to read. A number of the people who read this blog on a daily basis will have read it already. Some of them have even posted links of their own to Andy's final words.

For my own part, I'll just contribute the following poem, which comes from Brian Turner's, Here, Bullet, probably the most moving book of poems I've ever read. I taught it in my college English classes to students all of whom would join Brian's and Andy's and my profession. The penultimate section of Andy's post, just before he begins to say farewell to his wife, made me remember this poem by Turner. Unlike Andy, I have had the good fortune to meet Brian, and share a long conversation over coffee. I'll have more to say on that later. For now, here is Brian Turner's "Sadiq":

It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more. --Sa'di

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend
it should break your heart to kill.
I think Andy would have liked that poem. I think Andy would have like Brian. I think they would have liked each other.

Godspeed, Andy. Godspeed.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The New (and exceedingly lame) 2008 List of Banished Words

New year, new list of words nominated for banishment. I expect better.

It's bad enough to ban words for which no useful substitute is offered, such as "waterboarding," or "Post 9/11," but to flaunt ignorance with an entry like the following is shameful:

AUTHOR/AUTHORED – "In one of former TV commentator Edwin Newman's books, he wonders if it would be correct to say that someone 'paintered' a picture?" – Dorothy Betzweiser, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Without the original source to hand, I can only hope that Newman was having fun. But to Ms. Betzweiser, who submitted the now banished construction, I can only say, No, dear, it would not be correct. Nor would it be correct to say, "I think I'll sit down and auth a book." Different rules at work.

Not to get emotional, but all in all, it's a huge disappointment, with none of the pop of those sweet lists they used to come out with back in the day when the surge of wit from random contributors anxious to give back something to the language would decimate, with a perfect storm of condemnation, those wordsmiths deserving to be tossed under the bus for abusing our precious tongue. Alas, those days are gone, and the list for 2008 is what it is.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tom Hanks: 007

I'm sure I'm not the only person who seriously considered calling in and telling the office I needed to take a day of leave today. I can't remember when it was ever so hard to get out of bed.

So, in the interest of getting a few more minutes sleep tonight, I'm going to wimp out and do more linking than thinking. I found the video below over on at Instapundit on Christmas day. I've just been waiting for the right time to share it. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New in the Blogroll for 2008

There's never enough time to read. That's why I've added a few more blogs to the relatively short list that I visit on a regular basis. And now you understand what I mean when I say that math is not my forte.

Almost always, blog reading is viral. A blog you like points out something they like, you visit and become a regular reader. If they become habit forming, I add them to the blogroll. But my doing so doesn't necessarily mean that you'll even notice them. So, a brief introduction seems in order. Here's what's relatively new in my blogroll for 2008, and why I find them worthwhile:

  • Exile in Portales: Buck's retired military, and every now and then waxes poetic about his topics. I like to be there when he does.
  • Neptunus Lex: Navy flyer stationed in sunny SoCal as far as I can tell, but a good southern boy unless I'm confused. Prolific and talented with words. Clearly spends most of his days getting paid by Uncle Sam, but writing his blog. Either that or he has no life at home. ;-) Chap introduced me to this one with a particularly good post about southern stuff.
  • I'm still getting to know Jay over at The Extended Table, but it's been enjoyable so far.
  • The old standbys: Enrevanche, Chapomatic, & The Archer Pelican have been daily reads since the beginning.
The point is, just because I don't always mention them here, don't think the names are up there just for some mutual backscratching. Like the subtitle proclaims. They're worth visiting.

Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Mineclearing in Afghanistan

The image in my mind as I began yesterday's post is one of those I failed to capture for myself during my "visit" to Afghanistan in 2002-03. There is no living human presence in that mental picture. Rather, a straight trail stretches off into the distance, across a relatively flat landscape. The trail is lined with rocks. The rocks are painted like the fishing bobbers we used when I was a child--half red, half white. They lay on their sides. White into the trail. Red facing away. You stay on the white side. In some places, they line the roads themselves. The following is from my Thanksgiving letter, 2002, and describes a trip from Bagram to Kabul:

At the one intersection we come to, we turn southeast, taking the less populated route to Kabul. For miles as we leave the area of the base, the roads are lined with rocks every twenty feet or so. Red and white each rock is painted. White side to the road, red to the fields . . . the minefields.

Only a week before I came here, one of the drivers of one of the fuel trucks waiting outside the gate had resisted the call of nature for as long as he could. The inspection of each truck is thorough, and the line that day was long. He stepped off the road, the road we've just come along, and walked a few paces in order to relieve himself. In that field he left the contents of his bladder, a good bit of his blood, and the shards of bone and flesh that had once been one of his feet. One of his fellow truck drivers walked into that same field and carried him out. "He was my friend. He was crying out for help. What else could I do?"
That was five years ago. In looking for an image of such a trail somewhere on the net, the closest thing I could find initially was this one from from: Military Photos.Net, 6 Nov 07:

A member of Halo trust team . . . in Kohi Safi, Afghanistan on Nov. 1, 2007. Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. A mine clearance team from the Halo Trust have been working for more than a year in the small village of Kohe Safi and have removed 800 mines and 118 unexploded bombs. Throughout the country the Halo Trust alone is working to clear 90 million square meters of mine fields containing some 640,000 mines, they estimate it will take them 18 years to complete this task. A break through in mine detection not seen since World War II is due to speed things up in the coming year when Halo become the first civllian organisation to use H-STAMIDS (The Handheld Stand-Off Mine Detection System) a new combination tool with a metal detector and ground penetrating radar system. The H-STAMIDS remain classified and during recent trails in Afghanistan the device had to be returned to the US military at the end of each day. The new equipment should make mine clearance 2-3 times faster.
From that caption, I visited the site of the Halo Trust itself. Where I found this photo:
The key point, is that reaping the mines sown over 20 years of war is likely to take even longer than two decades.

I suppose the same may be true of those other mines as well.