Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On Losing a Friend


A few years back I had heart surgery after a trip to the doctor for a plugged ear surprisingly morphed into a stress test and trip to the hospital. During an angiogram, the doctor found two blockages - one blood vessel 50% plugged and the other 99%. He didn't run the scope through my 100% blocked right ear, but I wished at the time that he had. It was bugging the hell out of me.

As I watched the borescope traverse my heart on a big screen monitor, the doctor pointed to my innards and offered advice on the things he could do and things he couldn't. Together, we decided that even though he could repair both blockages with angioplasties, he couldn't guarantee that one of them - the 50 percenter - wouldn't clog again.

When I asked how I'd know if it blocked again, his answer was, "You'll have a heart attack." I decided to have the bypasses right then, on the table. Waiting for a heart attack didn't strike me as a particularly good method of risk management.

I didn't really give the decision much thought. In fact, I viewed it as just one more everyday event in a bumptious, careening life. I went home. I had a nice weekend, and reported back for my surgery on Monday afternoon. The Omnipotent Dad flew cross-country to be by my side while my calmness distressed Mrs. Poobah.

I had the surgery, but afterward, I had none of those "A-HA!" moments that signaled a new perspective on life. No great revelations about staring down death or feeling the beauty of each day I'd snatched away from the grim reaper. After a shorter than average recovery period, I simply went back to doing what I'd been doing before.

After a few months, I noticed that my memory wasn't quite as sharp as it used to be. I'd always been able to recall thousands of trivial bits of information at the drop of a hat.

What's the best way to kill flies? Aim slightly behind them, because they jump backwards to take off. How many rooms are in the White House? That would be 132. Who was the voice in the TV sitcom - My Mother the Car? Ann Southern. And for bonus points, she played opposite Jerry Van Dyke. Mr. Ed "talked" because they slathered peanut butter on his lips, Peter Jennings never finished grade school, and the first person to achieve controlled flight was Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont (the Wright bothers were the first to achieve controlled powered flight).

Suddenly, I found my vast store of knowledge frustratingly difficult to access. I began to forget names of people I'd known for years - while I was talking to them. I forgot what I was supposed to buy at the grocery and forgot to run errands, finish small details of everyday life, or go to doctor's appointments. While these things weren't happening often enough to become unmanageable, they were still pains in my gigantic omnipotent ass.

One day I realized that I'd begun to have trouble reading, not a lot, but just enough to make it less satisfying. Of all the things that happened, this was the main event.

Before the surgery I'd been a life-long, voracious reader. It was a happy compulsion for me. I frequently read books in a single sitting. My tastes ran the gamut from classics to noir. Newspapers, magazines, and the backs of shampoo bottles. It didn't matter. It was all interesting to me. Reading had always been a refuge from a troubled life. It as a way to transport myself to some place that was more appealing, whether that place was staring death in the eye by running the Amazon or sitting on a front porch in the warm Georgia sun.

And it was a shocking capability to lose.

My doctors and all suspected the surgery. I learned that people who had the type of surgery I'd had sometimes develop minor memory loss or diminishment of their attention spans. The doctors sympathized that my developments could be frustrating, but that I was generally OK and that it wouldn't get any worse.

And it hasn't.

I can cope with not being able to recall trivia at will. It doesn't really matter that the White House has 132 rooms when I can recall that one of them is inhabited by a congenital idiot. Forgetting a name isn't so bad. When it happens, I compensate or fess-up that I've forgotten and chalk it up to having a "senior moment". Sometimes I even get a laugh out of it.

But the loss of books as a favored companion is tough.

I still go to bookstores and look at the racks. There are plenty of titles to interest me. I'm still on the lookout for the odd title like, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg, or favored author like Steinbeck, Kerouac, or Russo. But the experience is like a recovering alcoholic in a liquor store. You can stare longingly at the graceful necks of the bottles, but you know that's about as far is it can go.

I haven't read an entire book in over a year, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. It was so difficult, the starts and stops spread into a 6-month long ordeal. I finally finished the book, but only by force of will and a disjointed journey that made it unpleasant.

I can still master some reading. Since I'm a writer, I read a lot at work - though it's not the most scintillating stuff. I can manage a blog posting. Newspapers still work and magazine articles do too - if they aren't too long. I still get a little charge over reading the ingredients on the back of a cereal box or the chemical names on the backs of shampoo bottles. Old habits die hard.

But books? Fugedaboutit.

Don't get me wrong. On the whole, the surgery was a success. I might not be here today without it. I'd have lost other, more important pleasures, like seeing the Poobette grow up, spooning with Mrs. Poobah, or stroking the dog and hearing her groan in pleasure.

But losing the books? That's tough. Really tough. Like losing a close friend.

So that's why I chose this topic today - so you could read it and I could read vicariously through you.

It's a neat trick, but it's still not the same - like margarine isn't butter.

BTW, did you know that margarine was invented because of a request from Napoleon's personal chef? He developed it because butter always spoiled on long campaigns.

I learned that from a book you know.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

After the Storm


Politics is like a line of advancing hurricanes over the Atlantic. Each storm chugs along in it's own meandering way. Some run out of steam, others come ashore in some hapless place to flatten the houses of the innocent and arrogant alike.

This week's storm was a doozy.

After weeks of predictions, the storm gained strength, ran quickly up the Potomac, and came ashore at Capitol Hill as a full-blown Category 5 monster. The wind and the waves were terrifying. Many a boat went awash. Roofs peeled away like kindling. Fat old white guys, in three-piece suits, flew through the air like cheesy special effects in a bad disaster movie. The fierce winds lashed the place for 48 hours like a demonic Big Bad Wolf, bloviating for all he was worth.

Then the wind died and the survivors took stock.

Those who lost the most crawled out from under the wreckage, squinted into the newly bright sun, and wondered what had become of their fine Georgetown houses. They looked tattered and in shock standing around in their torn suits. One was missing a $500 wingtip. Another floated in the Mall's Reflecting Pool, held afloat by an expensive Italian briefcase. A few staggered over to K St. in search of help from special friends, perhaps a nice lunch at a good restaurant or a golf trip to help calm their frazzled nerves.

But all they found were deserted offices. A castoff black hat bounced down the empty street in a weak and dirty breeze.

The winners stood up equally shocked. Most of them looked not much worse for wear. They were intact if a little frazzled and tired. It seemed the shit squalls of bad behavior and outrageous lies had washed over them and merely dirtied their suits. A nice quiet bath and a good meal would restore them to health.

Within hours, the losers clustered and began to fight amongst themselves, each blaming the other for the losses of the storm. A few - too tired to argue - simply limped away, unable to face the harsh reality drying in the heat of the fresh sun. Others, protected by special impermeable bubbles, began throwing out the bespectacled detritus they had clung to so recently. They set the table and invited some of the more important winners over for finger sandwiches and tea. They told them through clenched teeth what a fine thing they had done to survive. They promised fidelity and ruminated on how winners and losers must come together and march united into the future.

The winners, for their part, stopped calling the losers bad names and politely ate their sandwiches while nodding in agreement and smiling the anguished smile of someone who would rather be almost anywhere else.

In the end, the town survived. The damage could all be cleared away. No one died and the ones who'd been injured judiciously withdrew to lick their wounds.

I'd like to think the story ends here, with a big sunset and the main characters strolling hand-in-hand into the future. But unlike the science of predicting major storms, the science of predicting political behavior is precise.

We all know that as soon as they walk offscreen, they'll disentangle themselves and leap at one another, teeth bared and fighting furiously for the upper hand. The K Streeters will return and place huge bets on the fight. The Congress will return to the name calling and brinksmanship where labeling something bipartisan is the strongest guarantee that it isn't. Smoke will once again fill the backrooms. Up will once again become down and down will once again point up.

And off on the horizon, still fuzzy and indistinct, is another storm. It's starting it's journey from the desert sands of the Middle East. Soon it will cross over water, gain strength, and start its meandering march across the Atlantic. When it reaches the Potomac shore, the promised levees and flood control will remain unbuilt because funding went to a bridge to nowhere. The congressional yachts moored at the Anacostia Yacht Club will bob in the gathering wind, and another wild storm will begin anew.

Life, like the weather, goes on. It's funny that way.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Poobah Files: Korea is a Pain in the Ass


To me, the Korean peninsula is more than just a place where crazy guys dressed in nuclear-powered leisure suits and bad hairpieces live. It's a place where I spent a month during the winter of 1979.

And I have a scar to prove it.

During my Air Force days, I traveled in my lumbering C-130 from North Carolina to Pusan, Korea via Albuquerque, Spokane, Anchorage, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Tokyo. After the four-day jaunt, I peeled myself from the airplane, made a mental note to look into getting a new travel agent, and joined an annual military exercise called Team Spirit. Team Spirit entailed neither teams nor spirit so far as I could tell. In fact, I never saw a cheerleader or football team anywhere near Pusan.

The exercise was what they called a "field conditions" exercise in the Air Force. Aircrews of that era flew around the world and usually stayed in hotels even as the grunts we carried rolled out of the airplane and lived in tents...if they were lucky. These were the conditions that convinced me we'd never go to war unless there was a nice Ramada Inn nearby.

Field conditions at Pusan meant living in 6-man tents, not unlike the ones in M*A*S*H. The tents were arranged in a "city" of 2000. It had aluminum streets, a post office, movie theatre, fire department, police department, jail, mess hall, church, base exchange, liquor store, and the obligatory NCO and Officers Clubs. We got two hot meals a day in the giant mess hall, but field conditions meant a lunch of C-Rations (inedible forerunners of today's MREs). However, if you weren't up for them you could go to the snack bar at the base exchange and grab a hot dog and a beer.

Obviously, living conditions were rough. Imagine, existing on beer and hot dogs for lunch. It was quite uncivilized.

Despite hauling a complete city - including 10 kitchen sinks (I know, my airplane carried them) - 5000 miles across an ocean, the Air Force decided that gang showers were all they could muster for personal hygiene.

Apparently there was a problem with shortening the fairways at the portable golf course to make room for anything bigger.

The shower tent accommodated about 50 men and was divided into chilly, unheated shower and shaving rooms. The only heat was a third small, slippery, and excessively crowded room made unbearably hot by wet bodies and an oil-fired heater made from an old oil drum.

Designed by a defense contractor with a sick sense of humor, the towel room was as practical as the four-day, six-stop flight it took to get there. The 8X8-foot room was perpetually crammed with as many as 20 people struggling to dry off and pull on heavy winter uniforms. The wet, plywood floor was slipperier than a hockey rink, the shower steam reduced visibility to three feet, and the red-hot furnace was strategically placed directly in the middle. A recipe for disaster.

The snapping towels and people standing on a single mukluk-clad leg as they struggled to put on pants were more dangerous than any of us would ever face "in the field". More than once, someone fell out of the tent flap with their pants around their ankles and landed ass-first in the snowy mud outside.

And, of course, the contractor put the shower tent directly across the street from the mess tent door, providing a prime viewing area for all the mishaps. Sort of a crude dinner and entertainment complex.

One morning as I was stooped over drying my ankles, a large naked airmen tried to squeeze by me. At the moment of my maximum imbalance, his naked ass swung around, hit me in the head, and caused me to back pedal to keep my balance. Because of the slick floor, my back pedal turned into a back skate, ending with my naked ass smashing into the red-hot furnace. I let out a howl, grabbed my backside and leapt forward - directly into the stomach of another airman close to the tent flap. As he tumbled backward, he grabbed my head for support and we both ended up in a tangled, naked heap in a huge, semi-frozen mud pit outside.

To the sound of cheers, I gathered my tattered dignity and went back to shower off the mud. The second time around, I dressed in the shaving room, gingerly pulling my pants on over my red-welted ass.

It was a long, painful walk to the field hospital where a giggling medical technician from the south applied lotion and bandages to my scalded butt. My treatment ended with her observation that, "I think that's gonna leave a scar. Ya'll have a nice day!"

So today when I see the silly little man with the WMD and bad hair, I think to myself, "That guy is a huge pain in the ass" and mean it quite literally.

Believe me, it throbs every time I see him.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Suspended in Amber


One of the first things I see when I descend from my house in the dark morning are the lights of the city spread out below. Some days the lights are crystal clear. I can pick out individual cars and the traffic lights blink through their predictable rounds. Other days, the lights are shrouded in thick fog and I see nothing but the ghosts of houses along my street, caught in the headlights as I roll quietly past. This morning, there was a light, drizzly fog. The kind that spontaneously forms tiny water droplets on your skin. The lights had turned soft and indistinguishable in the dark. The fog gave them a dreary look that perfectly matched my mood.

My old friend depression has been hanging about lately. Not the "I just want to curl up in a ball" variety, but more of a "sigh, I can't put my finger on the problem" variety.

When I go to work, I feel pretty ambivalent. It isn't that I hate my job, or don't understand that I must work, or that I'm lazy, it's just that I'm not happy with it either. It's something I must do as opposed to something I want to do. The resulting ambivalence catches me in an awkward place. I find myself thinking - a little too realistically for my own good - how it would feel to drive past my freeway exit, climb over the mountains, and join the coastal road for a long trip that would last forever.

Of course, I only envision myself in a single moment, somewhere on the highway, going no place in particular. I conveniently forget all the accouterment of such a trip. Buying gas, eating lunch, finding places to sleep, missing my family, deciding which way to go next. In my mind, those things no longer exist. The only thing I can imagine is being on the road at a single moment that lasts forever, frozen in time, but infinitely mobile. I'm not going anywhere other than where I want to be - which just happens to be an empty stretch of highway that unwinds in front of me.

I've spent a lot of time wondering where these feelings come from. I work at a good company that treats its employees exceptionally well. I'm paid a handsome salary and I don't feel overworked. Sure, each day holds its petty annoyances, but there really are surprisingly few. Yet, I don't want to be here. In fact, I'm fairly confident I don't really want to be anywhere, except in that car on the endless coastal highway.

While I can't say for sure, I do have a theory about why I feel the way I do.

I've gone to a job nearly every day for 35 years. I like to think I did a good job. I even liked some of them in the usual sense. I got up and looked forward to going in or found interests or challenges in that world. But the notion that I was working because I had to, rather than because I chose too, always gnawed at me. I'd be the first to admit this is a selfish point of view. I mean, who am I to bitch about going to a job with good pay and benefits? After all, most of the people in the world would be happy with a job that provided a little rice for their distended bellies. I have the luxury of bitching that the less fortunate never get.

But jobs, and indeed the 35 years doing them, aren't the whole story. I began carrying hefty responsibilities at an early age and none of them went away when I added the daily routine of work to the mix. I've spent nearly every minute of every day carrying them. Many were self-assumed and ones that I gladly bore - being married for instance. But most of them were handed to me without invitation - for example, battling depression or being laid off or mowing the lawn. They just appeared on my doorstep and I accepted them without thinking. They were simply chores that needed to be done. Small events that I had to weather to get to the next one.

So in the end, I've developed an automatic aversion to anything that requires me to do something other than of my own making. I dislike work not because it's a painful experience, but because it's a responsibility. I'm at a point in my life where I long to do things of my own device. Things that are never a responsibility, but that I only do for the simple reason that I want to.

Filtered through the gauze of mild depression, I find it difficult to listen to my rational brain explain that work and responsibilities are an integral part of the human condition, something all humans share regardless of their station or wealth. Instead, it's the flitty, irrational bit of my mind that talks a little louder and urges me to keep on going when I reach my freeway exit. As the rational part of me calmly explains the facts of life and the irrational part of me urges me to do things that ignore the facts of life, I find myself stunned by the ongoing distraction. Rather than hearing something positive, that distraction is what keeps me keeping on.

So when I feel the pull of the open road and my rational self wins again, I find myself suspended in psychological amber. I take the exit. I ride the elevator. I do the things that are required of me. But I always reserve a little part of my brain to take the occasional virtual trip past the exit, over the mountain, and along an endless coastal road that never ends.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Cold War, Hot Temper

I recently learned I'm eligible for a Cold War service medal for my late 70s-early 80s stint in the Air Force. Not being the sort who delights in wearing my old uniform bedecked with medals every Fourth of July; I probably won't take the time to find all the missing paperwork to prove I'm entitled to it.

Besides, the Cold War was a pretty sweet deal for me. I flew around the world in my own semi-private airplane, visiting 24 countries on every continent save Antarctica and Australia. Most of my missions were logistical trips to deliver dependent household goods here or a planeload of live goats there (that's a story for another day though). And despite my training, I never seriously believed the Cold War would turn hot. The Soviets and the Chinese understood that nukes equaled death, proving that the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) wasn't so mad after all.

Besides, if they'd invaded, we could have easily co-opted them by meeting the Commie hoards on the beach and offering free McDonald's franchises to lay down their arms.

The other reason I won't go for the medal is that I believe I personally had little or nothing to do with thawing out the war. I know this is political heresy, but I'd like to point out that - contrary to popular belief - Ronald Reagan had little to do with it either.

No doubt he was in office when the wheels came off the tatty Commie bus, but it wasn't because of some diabolically clever plan he cooked up. Reagan simply applied the greatest capitalist tool of all - spending like a drunken sailor. He spent two dollars for every dollar the Soviets did and finally the strain became too great and they went bust.

But today is different. The Soviets never quite got the hang of the whole capitalism thing and now find themselves in poorer shape than a failed five-year plan. The Chinese caught the money bug and now whip our capitalist asses with some weird, voodoo mix of human rights repression and unrepentant deal making. The proof of their success is that all the cheap crap that used to say Made in Japan now says Made in China. The Japanese are now making all the expensive stuff and we're reduced to relying on outsourced Indian accountants to sign the checks that pay our obscenely compensated CEOs their bonuses and finance moving our last manufacturing jobs offshore.

It's different in other ways too.

While we giddily ship everything of value off to China, including apparently our foreign policy regarding North Korea, we forget that they're merely humoring us. They're simply buying everything we'll willingly sell before turning on us and stomping us like protesters out for a stroll on Tiananmen Square.

Meanwhile the ex-Soviets are acting up, finally tired of the failed hope of capitalism and ready to return to the days of block-long bread lines that at least provided bread when you waited your day-long turn.

The more I look at the situation, the more I think that things are sliding rather rapidly to a new and different kind of Cold War. This time around, the MAD principle isn't going to work. Someone who's willing to fly the 6:45 flight to Chicago into a high rise won't give much thought to lobbing a nuke at their neighbors. The high-minded ideal that nukes are a danger of the past and that we'd passed the need for all that destructive power is dead too. Now, we'll find all manners of crackpot Amadenamacallits and Kim (You Make Me) Il Jungs ready to redecorate half a hemisphere with a well-placed nuke.

Yet here we sit, unwilling and unable to stop a war we started. We're too tied down to face up to the crackpots who actually have nukes and ask the Chinese to, "please sir, make those evil axis Koreans stop." We're not staying the course. We're sitting in the road and the sound of a semi is coming upon us quickly.

Our problem is not Iraq. Our problem is not the War on Terror. Our problem is we have incompetent asshats who couldn't run the Texas Rangers baseball team in charge of the country.So before the few civil liberties I still have evaporate like water on a hot, Texas sidewalk, I'm going to say this...

Mr. President, get off your cowpie chompin' ass and do something right for a change. As of today, we have 300 million people in this country. Surely you can find a person amongst them who isn't dumb as a stump to advise you on what to do next, because you obviously don't know what the hell you're doing.

So now I've vented. Now I've proclaimed - yet again - what a fine pickle we're in. I wish I could say it helped, but it didn't. I'm left with nothing but an address to claim a medal commemorating a war that wasn't a war and worry whether this country will still be around for my daughter to enjoy as I have.

It's a big worry indeed and I don't think it's going to stop any time soon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A cup of coffee for your soul.

If there were such a thing as ambassador for the Blogosphere, Omnipotent Poobah would have to be the first choice for a nomination to that position. The guy is everywhere, and his travels are also proof of the level of civility that Omnipotent Poobah maintains for himself.

Omnipotent Poobah is frequently thought of by the misinformed as being some sort of wild-eyed liberal. Wild-eyed liberals do not show up and leave gracious comments on Reverend Gillmartin’s inaugural post. Omnipotent Poobah did, and Gillmartin has such a high level of respect for this wild-eyed liberal, that you will frequently notice him linking out to Omnipotent Poobah from his posts at The Sheep’s Crib.

True enough, Omnipotent Poobah regularly can be observed pounding stakes into the heart of the Bush administration. While I might argue with the tenacity that he brings to these attacks, I cannot ever recall him trumping up an attack, or twisting the administration’s statements to the point where he crosses the slander line.

Not that I did not wish to bring you Omnipotent Poobah’s humorous side, but where he really shines is when he goes apolitical. He has something in common with Lingo Slinger, and that he is one of the few writers that can remove all barriers that exist between the writer and the reader. Poobah is the type of writer you want to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when the entire house is quiet, and it is just you and your cup of coffee.

Omnipotent Poobah possesses a heart that is on par with Gillmartin’s, and if the room is quiet when you’re reading him, he can take you right into his own living room, at the very moment that he wrote the piece you’re reading. You can feel the raindrops falling outside his window, and if you listen closely, you can hear his heart beating.

If in fact he is a wild-eyed liberal, he is a wild-eyed liberal that you can work with, no matter what your political orientation may be. He is also a writer with such tremendous skills, that even a wild-eyed neocon can read his writing, and find a tear falling down his face.