Thursday, May 31, 2007

Part 2: VA Disability Claims

This is part 2 of my advice series devoted to how to prepare for and pursue VA disability claims and what to watch out for. As I said in part 1, almost everyone needs help doing this stuff. The system is slanted against the vet, and most vets don’t know what they don’t know. The VA routinely screws vets without the veteran ever knowing it. So, I’ll continue with my “lessons learned:”

· Tinnitus. This inner-ear disease is possibly the most common of all hearing conditions, and yet it’s probably also the most underreported. People in the military are especially susceptible to it because it’s usually brought on by exposure to high intensity sound. It’s easy to tell if you have it—just go into a quiet room and if you hear a high-pitched tone or ringing then you have it. If you ever qualified with a rifle or a pistol, you more than likely had enough exposure to cause it. Almost all combat arms people are likely to get it. If you were around a flight line, that would do it as well. Tinnitus can also be brought on as a side-effect to many medications. Anyway, the only test for it is your complaint of it, but most service personnel get so used to it that they don’t even realize that it is an ailment—enough said. It’s an easy 10 percenter as long as it is documented. If you are still on active duty, report it. Once you have it in your records its good forever. Final note on tinnitus: As with many conditions this one can become VERY severe with age, to the point that it interferes with proper hearing--all the more reason to get it established while you can. Don't wait.

  • Mental Health. If you have any of the following—mood/anxiety issues or disorders, fight with your spouse, unnecessarily yell at your kids, sleep problems, easily agitated, irritable, feel unexplainable anger, or sad/depressed—please think about seeing mental health specialists. Most service folk won’t consider doing it because of the negative stigma or concerns for their career. Thing is, if you have some kind of mental or emotional problem and you do not get it documented while you are still on active duty or within one-year from discharge, the VA will not grant compensation based on service-connection. Think very careful about this one, because once you go down the path it WILL haunt you for the rest of your career, that is, IF they even allow you to continue it.

· Traumatic Events leading to possible PTSD? On the same note as above, if you have ever been involved with a traumatic event such as witnessing the accidental or violent death of a co-worker, your own near death or trauma, or if you have just been around a lot of that kind of thing, perhaps during an assignment to a conflict area, AND it has affected you psychologically in some negative way, see your mental health specialist. The VA WILL award you disability for it if you are diagnosed with PTSD, especially if you can show current treatment. You can do it after you are out, but it is immensely easier to get these kinds of disorders approved for service connection if you get them documented while you are STILL in the service. It’s a tough decision, because it CAN affect your continued career, BUT you should at least know about it and understand what is at stake—yours and your family’s well being. ( I want to cover PTSD claims more thoroughly in the next post. There are other very important points to discuss concerning this condition).

· Watch out for these Mental Disorders! Watch that your service psychiatrist does NOT brand you with Personality Disorder or Temporary Adjustment Disorder. They seem to be in collusion with the VA when they do so, and they seem to be doing it more and more; primarily, I believe, because these conditions are NOT compensable.

  • Ratings Percentage—what does it mean? I’ll try to keep this simple… A disability “percentage” is not the percentage of your retirement pay as many folks suppose. By a formula, it works out to be a percentage of your body and your ability to use it (or not use it) to be employed. Each percentage, is awarded in increments of 10, and the higher the percentage the higher the award. It will also increase depending on how many dependents you have, and it is not affected at all by what rank you were when you retired. Also, do NOT try to simply add these up to get your overall award--it doesn't work that way. For example, if you get awarded five 10's, another for your back for 40%, and then 30% more for a mood disorder, it will not equal 120%. There is a table called a Combined Ratings Table that the VA uses to total up the individual awards. It’s not a complicated formula, but it can be tricky if you don’t know how to do it. Plus, there is something called the “bilateral factor,” which must be figured first before the rest of the individual disability ratings are totaled by using the Combined Ratings Table. To the untrained, it all seems very unfathomable indeed! On top of all that are special monthly compensation,commonly called SMCs, based on severe conditions such as loss of limbs and organs or their use.
  • Individual Unemployability (IU). Keep this in mind. If your disabilities combine to 70% or more and you have at least one disability rated at 40%, OR, if you have a SINGLE rating of 60%, your next step will be to apply for “Individual Unemployability (IU).” That is equivalent to 100%. In that case, if you have a couple of dependents, your monthly disability check will be about $2600—tax-free.
    • The beauty of VA disability is that it is the same for an E1 as it is for an 06—your rank after retirement means nothing when it comes to your disability award.

    • However, if you have a 4-year or even a 2-year degree of some kind, the VA, as a matter of course, ALWAYS turns a veteran down for IU with the rationale that clerical work should be possible. I represented a 77-year-old WWII veteran that I had to fight tooth-and-nail for to get him IU because he had a degree. Mind you, this guy had a heart condition, was mostly blind, a full-blown diabetic, and constantly experienced mini-strokes where he would black out at any time even while he was walking! We had to fight this one out until the VA finally relented and we got him his full 100%. What a bunch of weenies the VA can be at times!
    • Concurrent Receipt: Starting in January 2004, a new law went into effect allowing concurrent receipt of both VA disability AND retirement pay, but ONLY for those with a disability combined total of 50% or more. However, to save money, Congress stipulated that it be done by yearly increases over a 10 year phase-in period which drags out full receipt until 2014.
      • Concurrent Receipt for vets with IU: Congress passed a follow on provision that “hurried up” the process so that IU vets will receive their full concurrent receipt by October 2009, a full 5 years faster.

That’s enough advice and information for this installment. This stuff can be overwhelming if you try to absorb too much at once. The average veteran does NOT know even a smidgeon of the vast amount of specialized information required for claims success. I’m convinced that the VA and Department of Defense is perfectly happy to keep it that way. If you have any specific questions drop me an email at the address shown on my profile page. I’ll post part 3 soon.

part 1

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My Evil Twin?

Somewhere in Angeles City I have a doppelganger, or perhaps an evil twin. (Or, maybe I'm his evil twin!)

For months now I’ve had the weird experience of having people look at me strangely, as if they wanted to say something but weren’t quite sure if they should even approach. I’ve always blown it off thinking maybe they’ve seen me at school or at the VFW. I’ve usually just nodded to them or ignored them, and then moved on without much thought. I figured I just had an unapproachable look and let it go at that. I HAVE been accused of having a "mean" face before, so it was plausible.

Last year however, I started to get an inkling of some other explanation for these “funny looks” from strangers, when a girl, a classmate at school, asked why I was so suplado? (That means “stuck up.”) She said she had seen me at one of the malls and called out my name, but I hadn’t even looked up. I told her with full confidence that it certainly wasn’t me since I never go to malls, or to any store for that manner.

In a Fields Avenue bar, minding my own business one afternoon, I was talking with a fellow veteran, when a sassy young bar-dolly comes up to me with a big smile and a hug. With mock anger she excitedly asks me why hadn’t I come back the next day like I’d supposedly promised her. I had no idea what she was talking about. I had never seen her before—Honest! But, she insisted that she knew me—she was convinced of it.

Well,’ I thought, ‘maybe I just forgot about her. I AM getting up there in years.'

But I never really listened to my own doubts—I’m not THAT old. I’d never seen her before—I was sure of it, no matter how certain she was otherwise.

Early last year, a squad of three of the local gendarmes flagged me down at a “flying” checkpoint on my way home from school. If you ride a scooter or a motorcycle here you can expect to be pulled over at least once or twice a week, and just before elections the “inconvenience meter” can reach the once or twice a DAY level. I’ve learned to put on an easygoing friendly face with them no matter what in an effort to keep things light and amiable. What they are doing is “fishing for fines,” so I at all times keep everything in order—my license and registration is up to date, and I am NEVER without my helmet. Otherwise, they’ll “reel you in” and finagle 100 or so pesos out of you. But this police stop turned out different from most.

One of the officers looked at me quizzically and said, “Hey, I remember you from last week. Do you remember?” For some reason he seemed irritated with me, which concerned me because I had no idea why.

Carefully, like I would when dealing with an unknown stray, I answered him, “No sir. I don’t remember. I wasn’t stopped by the police last week, so it couldn’t have been me.”

At that, his irritation bumped up a notch into low-grade hostility. Actually, he looked very determined to be angry.

He snapped at me, “You go to Systems Plus right?”

“Yes, that’s right…” I answered uncertainly.

“Well, last week I stopped you by the school for not wearing a helmet and I gave you a break. You said you would see me again later and handle it then. Are you saying you don’t remember that?” As he said it he glared at me.

I had never seen this guy before at anytime in my life and I was not going to admit that I had! So, I stuck by my guns no matter how adamant he was, and HE was VERY adamant. But this anger thing worked both ways because I was becoming as irritated with him as he was with me.

I said to him, “Sir, I don’t know who you stopped last week, but it was NOT me! I’m sorry you think so. It must be someone who looks like me, because it wasn’t me.”

Patting my hand on the seat of my bike and then pointing to it, I asked him, “Take a look at this bike. Was it like this one, the one you stopped?”

He took a close look and that’s when I noticed some doubt finally creep into his face. His partner returned my license and registration and waved me on without any expression on his face. None of the three was happy with me after I had let my temper surface. I knew that was a mistake, but damn it, I felt like I had been provoked. Once again, my “other self,” obviously the “evil one,” had been out raising mischief for me.

Who IS this guy!

This kind of thing has been going on for a couple years now. You’d think I would have run into “evil me” by now; but no, I haven’t yet seen him.

Today though, I think I finally learned the name of this “twin me.”

The recumbent exercise cycle is right next to the front door of the gym. I was peddling it lazily when a customer, an older guy (like me!) wearing glasses, came in for a work out. Passing by me on his way to the check in counter, he nodded and smiled a big gregarious hello.

I thought, ‘Wow! That’s unusual. What a friendly guy.'

A few minutes later the bespectacled man came back and stood just a few feet from me. He was in my personal space and making me feel uneasy. He had a big toothy smile going as if he knew me. He seemed to be expecting me to say something to him, to greet him. He didn’t say anything; he just stood there with hands on hips and smiling dopily at me.

“Hey, how you doing?” I asked vacantly. Thinking maybe I did know him, but had forgot, I queried him further, “I’m sorry man, but do I know you?”

He seemed surprised and nonplussed at my lack of recognition. Ruefully, with a heavy Aussie accent he asked, “Oh, you’re not James? If you’re not him, you sure look exactly like him! Like his twin in fact!”

I thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go again!’ and asked the Aussie, “Tell me, is this guy an American? And he looks exactly like me? Are you sure? Because this isn’t the first time this has happened to me!”

“Yea…” he said in that Australian way that they say “yeah.” They really love that expression. “He’s an American alright…” He went on to say that just a few days earlier he had spent several hours drinking in a couple bars with this guy-who-looks-like-me. Staring at me, I could tell that he still had a hard time believing that I wasn’t this fellow, James.

Well, whoever this James character is, he's got to be one ugly bastard! I just hope he doesn't rob a bank or something. Because if he does, I'm screwed.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Part 1: VA Disability Claims Advice

I’ve decided to start a series of posts on VA disability claims based on what I’ve learned over the last five years of my dealings with the Veterans Administration. Recently, I was let go from my volunteer position as Veterans Service Officer due to what I will call “philosophical differences” with local members of my veterans service organization. I have to say that that was probably a good thing for me, since the psychological pressures and physical requirements of the position were affecting my own physical and mental well-being.

I’ve learned a lot of “VA stuff” over the years, because they know that, local veterans continue to approach me here in the Philippines for advice on how to pursue their claims and appeals. The disability claims system can seem very confusing indeed to the average veteran who, unlike me, does not have the benefit of hundred of cases of experience.

What drives me nuts is that any veteran should even require outside help, and believe me, THEY DO! A law passed in 2000 called “The Veterans Claims Act of 2000 and Duty to Assist” was enacted to TRY to make the VA do right by the veteran by forcing them to tell the veteran what they need to successfully support their claims. Despite the law, the VA rarely does this well. Now, veterans get reams of extra paper filled front and back with procedural code excerpts. Supposedly, the VA does this is to help “explain” their decisions. Unfortunately, to many veterans, all this extra “explanation” reads like gobbledygook and is overwhelming. In my experience what is mostly happening is that VA raters and review officers comply with the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.

I waited for several reasons to pass out this my VA disability claims “lessons learned.” At first, I wasn’t sure how much applies to veterans outside of the Philippines—I didn’t want to mislead anyone and hurt them with their claims. Also, I was leery about placing this information in the public domain for worry that it might cause young troops to become “sick call rangers.” However, I made up my mind to post after reading recently so much current news on how terrible the VA is at properly and expeditiously rating servicemen’s claims. It’s outrageous.

I realize the Internet is loaded with sites doling out this kind of advice, just the same, HERE is some more! With that said …

  • First, you are doing the right thing by getting started NOW. I wish I had known what I am imparting here as I went about completing my military career. Luckily for me, I ran into a vet about a year before I retired and she was nice enough to let me in on the basics of preparation while still on active duty. All I want to do is to try to pass on likewise what that nice lady did for me. She was a Godsend.

  • Get EVERYTHING documented. Ensure that every medical issue—past (if possible) and present (most certainly)—is reflected in your records. This includes headaches, twinges, sprains, aches, pains, tenosynovitus, muscle pulls, muscle strains, spasms, tinnitus, hemorrhoids—Everything! Ever had surgery? If you have any numbness, limitation of movement, tenderness—anything at all resulting from your operation—get it documented. Too many Vets try to use as an excuse that they’ve been self-medicating—that it hurt, but they were too busy setting a good example for their troops to make an appointment at sick call or through TriCare. The VA will NOT give much weight to your personal statement as credible evidence. Get your conditions documented in your service medical records or from your personal doctor in a written statement. In other words, the Air Force (or Army, or Marines, or Navy, or Coast Guard) may well appreciate your devotion to duty and your intense willingness to accomplish the mission, but the VA does NOT!

  • No matter how minor your ailment, especially if it is orthopedic, get it documented. For instance, if you twist an ankle or knee, strain your shoulder, or pull your back, get to the clinic and get it in your records no matter how minor you think it is.
    • Get a Diagnosis. Before you get out, while you still have the chance, check to ensure that your medical record entries show an actual diagnosis is entered and not just a symptom. The navy and army are guilty of doing this the most. Here’s what happens: You go to sick call and a corpsman or medic sees you. He writes down that you are complaining of low back pain or pain in your wrist. (PAIN is NOT a diagnosis!) He gets a prescription approved for a pain killer and that’s all you have in your records. The VA will fight you tooth and nail over your claim stating that you do NOT have a definite diagnosis, and therefore they will INITIALLY deny you every time. Bottom line: get every condition diagnosed to preempt this potential problem.
  • Ratings.
    • Keep in mind, though, that if you exhibit even a small amount of pain or if, for example, you find it difficult to bend over or do a knee bend, then you will get a minimum of 10% for each disability AS LONG AS THIS CONDITION IS DIAGNOSED TO A DISEASE OR CONDITION. It is important to remember thought that the VA will NOT diagnosis your painful condition. You would suppose they should but they will not. If you are already discharged, you might have to pay to get your own diagnosis. If you do not, then you put yourself at the mercy of the VA (NEVER DO THAT!)
    • If it is your knees, you could get 10% for each knee, although it’s possible that the rating board could combine them into a single rating. (The VA rates in increments of 10% starting at 0%, anything over 5% is rounded up to the next 10). Also note that a 0% is still good, because that means the VA is granting service connection for that problem, and if and when it ever flares up again, you can make a claim for an increase. A good example of this is Hemorrhoids. If you had a single flare up for them in your records, but they are fine during the exam, it is common to get a 0% for them as a rating.

No excuses! The VA doesn’t care if you were too busy while you were active duty to get treatment for an illness or ailment. I’ve had retired combat troops who had been injured in the field that had received treatment from field medics, and never bothered to follow up and get that treatment entered in their medical records. Their only recourse is to go back and find that medic or corpsmen and get a statement from him. That can be very difficult if it happened in I Corps in Vietnam in 1967, yet that’s what they have to do. Lesson is—get everything documented—the VA entertains no excuses.

Much more to come... Part 2

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Another Gym Talk, and talk, and talk, and talk...

Another day in my local Angeles City gym.

I was a regular chatty Cathy slash rabble-rouser today. First, I noticed Eugene from Olympia, Washington was back after supposedly going back to the States for the summer.

I greeted him, “Eugene! You’re back! You were barely gone for a month. So, you just couldn’t stay away from this place, eh?” I said jokingly.

“Yup, I’m back. I tried to explain to the people back there why I love it here so much, but they just don’t get it.”

I smiled and nodded understanding , “Well, let me guess—you have a little girlfriend out here, right? How old is she….?”

“Twenty-two.”

Eugene is in his late 50s to early 60s. I went on, “And do you have a girlfriend back there?”

He nodded yes. I continued to quiz him, “And how old is she?”

“Forty-seven,” he answered quickly, and continued just as quickly, almost defensively, “but its not JUST the age thing. People back home just don’t understand how sweet the girls are here. They don’t believe me when I tell them. My girl here just takes care of me better, AND she is not demanding in the least. Women back home, well, they NEED stuff! …It’s just easier here.”

I laughed. “Man, do you know how you sound? You sound like a selfish pig…I love it! But I know what you mean. Filipinas are incredibly giving, especially if you find the right one. Sounds like you did. But, I have to ask you. Are you sure your little dolly doesn’t have a local boyfriend or even a husband on the side? You got to watch out for that. It can get you killed if he finds out, or if he has second thoughts about you putting his woman through school. There are times that foreigners get killed by the pop-up drunk-out-of-his-mind boyfriend that he never even knew existed.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one,” he insisted. “But if she leaves me, it’s no big deal. That’s okay.”

“Let me ask you,” I said. “Does she ever have to go somewhere or take off for no good reason?”

“Nope. She pretty much stays in the apartment. She wants to go with me wherever I go.”

“Sounds like you’re good to go then. Paradise is yours. Carry on my friend!” I laughed.

++++++++++

Later, peddling my daily 30 minutes on the recumbent bike, I struck up a conversation with the guy peddling next to me, a tourist passing through for a week of fun and excitement from the States. He’s Philippe, a systems analyst, and a very unique fellow. Obviously mulatto, he says his family came originally from Jamaica. Yet, his accent is as Australian as any I’ve heard; well, maybe a bit muted since I can understand what he says without asking him to repeat anything. He arrived in the USA ten years ago at age 27 from Australia after being sponsored by his dad who had migrated to the States a few years earlier. What a world we live in!

Philippe is quite enamored with this place, specifically with all the wonderful girls. The phrase “kid in a candy shop” comes to mind when talking to him. He asked me what I thought about living here because he was seriously thinking about it himself someday.

I started into what turned into a lengthy lecture, “Well, you’re an analyst. You know what “risk to reward” means, right? THAT is what you get by living here. There are pitfalls and downsides that you MUST be aware of if you want to live here.”

“Really, like what?”

“Well, EVERYTHING! But, I’ll use an example of something you are familiar with—the bars. You notice all the bar managers are foreigners, right? Most of them are on shaky ground because they are probably working illegally without the proper visa. THEY are at risk. Thing is, lots of guys come here who don’t have a pension or some other permanent income source, so they end up as a bar manager. They don’t get paid all that much either, maybe 20 to 40 bucks a day, but that can be plenty enough to live on over here IF they don’t get caught. Now, did you hear about the raid on two of the bars the other night? Well, guess what? The fine for working without a visa can be upwards of 350,000 pesos (about $7600).”

I went on, “There were also bar customers caught up in that raid. Chances are they also were forced to pay up for who-knows-what—perhaps for public obscenity if they had one of the girls on their lap—who knows. It’s whatever they can be threatened with to scare them into paying up. Over here, it’s just easier to pay up than going to jail. And going to jail here can be a frightening prospect, especially if you’re just passing through as a tourist looking for some fun.”

Pausing, I took a breath and glanced over at Philippe who was looking a little worried…

“How often does that happen?” he asked.

“Well, they just voted in a new mayor; so no one knows how he’s going to treat the foreign bar owners. The former mayor used to reach out and squeeze a little milk from the cow every month or so, and this new guy looks like he wants some of that action too. Hell, that one raid probably netted the new administration several thousands of dollars in fines, at least. It’s said that winning a position in government here is like winning the lottery, and that’s why. Used to be they’d find some underage girls, but now that the owners are being more careful they just send in spies to point out to the raiding police which of the girls and their customers were acting “naughty.”

“It sounds risky to be a tourist here,” my peddling companion said nervously.

I continued my lecture, “Like I said, its all about risk-to-reward. My advice is to stay away from any bar where the girls are getting frisky from too many ladies’ drinks, ESPECIALLY if you see male Filipinos come into the bar. It sounds bigoted, but if I see a local male come in, I leave. Many of them are just looking to have some fun, but if they see what they consider to be THEIR women acting too bastos, as they say, they might just call it in to the local constabulary. If you are in the bar when they raid it, you get to stay there for as long as it takes for the cops to process everyone, AND you might just get chosen to be milked. I don’t want to alarm you Philippe, but its better to be safe than sorry, don’t you think?”

++++++++++

Sometime after that I got into another conversation, this time with Eugene and a 79-year-old Chinese American fellow that goes by Roland. Unions came up, so I thought I’d play devils advocate knowing that Eugene is a staunch union man and I have my own negative opinion of them.

I declared, “After serving in the military as an enlisted guy I have a hard time understanding the union mindset, because to me it seems so selfish and money oriented.”

I grinned when I could practically see the hair go up on the back of Eugene’s neck. He spoke up to make a point, “You know what pisses us off? When the big managers, the CEOs who make hundreds of millions a year tell us that we have to lay off workers who make a pittance in comparison to them to keep the company solvent. If the company is doing so poorly then why the hell are they paying those bastards so much to begin with? Of course its wrong.”

I chirped, “Well, when it comes to money, I could have been just as upset over the disparity in pay in the military. I was a Senior Master Sergeant with more than 25 years of experience and yet some young captain with a fraction of know-how makes a hell of a lot more. But, I didn’t dwell on that. For me, money was not the driving force behind my service and never was.”

Eugene complained about the lack of good paying jobs available in the States, claiming that the economy was not booming and that the only jobs to be had are low paying ones.

I shrugged claiming, “If I could work, I’m sure I could get a job that paid what I need. Sometimes you just have to be willing to go to where the work is and to get the training required for it. I did that for 27 years, but what does that have to do with the unions?” I laughed.

I decided to make another point or two: “My dad did his 20 with the Air Force and went to work for GM for 18 more. I almost never heard a good word from him about his time in the union. In fact, he was kind of disgusted with the attitudes of his fellow plant workers. It was always a them-against-us mentality—blue collars against salary. He struggled with that after having a mission to accomplish in the military. Civilians, especially union people, just don’t seem to have a sense of purpose. Their purpose is to force the company to meet their demands and to make sure they keep their jobs by making up a whole bunch of ridiculous rules.”

“Like what?” Eugene asked.

I answered, with hardly a pause, “How about rules about not letting workers do each other’s jobs. How stupid is that? It’s wasteful and adds cost to the product. Like ONLY electricians can change light bulbs. Like a machine operator not being allowed to assist the skilled workers when their machine breaks down. The button pushing machine operator loves it when his press stops working because he gets to read his paperback and have a coffee instead of doing something useful like holding a flashlight for the electrician. That’s just stupid. Don’t you agree?”

“Well, there are safety considerations. You can’t allow people to do work that they aren’t qualified to do. It can get someone killed or even cause a plant disaster!” Eugene responded heatedly.

“Hey, I know all about safety. In the Air Force we have 18-year-old kids working on high performance jet aircraft that are every bit as dangerous and explosive as anything in a factory. But we don’t have enough people to say that certain careers can ONLY do a limited number of jobs. We have a training system that systematically forces airmen to learn lots of other tasks outside of their career field. Every single task learned is documented and signed off by the airman and his trainer. Why can’t the unions do that? Why does it always have to be about artificially keeping the employee numbers up? What you’re doing is cutting your own throats. Do you think they have those silly rules in Japan, or China, or Korea, or Brazil? Hell no! And that’s why we can’t compete with them. They can make products a hell of a lot cheaper than we can. We either learn how to compete or close down all our manufacturing plants and send them overseas.” I stopped and gave Eugene a chance.

He did, “Well, maybe you’re right about some of those things, but I don’t think OSHA will let us do what you’re talking about.”

“Well, how about this. When my dad got into the Steering Gear plant he could hardly believe it when he saw that there were no programs to control the tools to make sure they were all accounted for and maintained. He also saw that there was no program to keep track of test equipment maintenance and calibration. And, he brought up the fact that there was no one watching over the publications to make sure they were up to date. He learned how to manage all those programs in the service. Yet, when he pointed out the need in the plant he got the shrug from both foreman and fellow workers. Finally, he got the go ahead and set up the programs. He set it all up just like the Air Force programs he was familiar with. He also took it upon himself to keep the programs going. THAT is the kind of initiative that ex-military people bring to the table. Unions stifle that kind of personal involvement.”

“Yeah, there isn’t a whole lot of that kind of thing sometimes. The system just doesn’t reward it,” Eugene conceded.

I wasn't done. “Get this—when my dad took his early retirement from Steering Gear no one took it upon themselves to keep his programs going. He was excited when one of the foremen called him and asked him to work as a part-time consultant to manage them. He didn’t need the money, but he thought it would be a neat way to stay in touch with his work buddies. But you know what? They all treated him like crap, because NOW he was no longer part of the union. They shunned him. Now THAT is bullshit! Is that what being in a union is all about, acting like a jerk?”

Poor Eugene didn’t know how to respond, but he tried halfheartedly, “Yeah, that kind of garbage can happen. It’s not right. I know.”

I decided I’d better let up on old Eugene. I noticed about then that he wasn’t so happy with me. He stalked off to his next set on another machine.

“Time to get back to work guys,” said Roland, who had been mostly just listening. He grinned, shaking his head with a wink at me through his spectacles. “Making friends I see,” he laughed.

+++++++++++

And finally, I had noticed a pretty young dark-haired girl with long perfect legs working out with a wooden staff. She had it over her shoulders and was twisting at the hips to get loose. The problem for me is that she was doing it so that two of the machines were not available for use. I asked her if I could squeeze into one of them. She took the hint and went into the aerobics room where she should have been in the first place. I was happy to see that Eugene was apparently over being miffed at me when he remarked that they should put up some signs to keep people from using the staff in the weight room.

I too ended up in the aerobics room a short time later. The last thing I do everyday is my matt work where I do my crunches and stretches. The pretty girl was lying on the floor using the crunch machine, but mostly resting between sets. She started to sing along to one of the old 80’s disco tunes filtering in from the main room, but stopped.

“Hey, feel free to sing if you want. Don’t mind me.” I told her.

She chuckled a little, “I forgot you were here…”

“Yeah, I know; I’m used to being invisible to pretty young girls,” I answered cheerfully. “You have an accent. Are you English?”

She answered that she was from London. Why is that? Whenever I ask someone if they are from the UK and they are from London, they feel compelled NOT to claim England as their home, but insist on declaring that they ARE from LONDON.

“What brings you to the Philippines?” I asked.

“I’m just visiting. My father lives here and apparently loves it.”

“Oh yeah, is he married? Or is he going to get married to a Filipina?”

She was adamant, “NO! I won’t let him. I would never give him my permission. I just spent two months in Thailand, and I know how the girls are.”

“Are you half-Filipina? Is your mom from here? Can I see your face?” She turned fully toward me and I saw a very beautiful girl without so much as a hint of Asian ethnicity.

“No, I’m completely English.” At least I think that’s what she said. Her words were barely comprehensible to me. When I listen to Tony Blair HIS English seems so clear, but with so many others from the UK I really have to concentrate to catch their meaning. It’s frustrating.

“Oh, I see. So, are you still a student? What do you do?”

“No, not anymore. I’m finished going to school.”

“That’s nice. Did you get a degree?”

“No. I would have to go to university.” She went into the particulars of the English tertiary education, but I could only understand every third word or so.

I interrupted her laughing, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand you. Why is it that English comes from England yet hardly anyone from there speaks it clearly—or is it just me?”

She smiled politely. I don’t think she understood what the heck I was talking about. Of course to her, she speaks as plain as day.

I continued my barrage of questions, “So what do you do? You working?”

Back to lying on her back to do another set I thought she said, “I’m self-employed. I’m a pole-vaulter.”

I was impressed. “I knew it. You LOOK like an athlete. So where do you compete? Where are your track meets—in Europe?”

“What? What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Didn’t you say that you are a pole-vaulter?”

“No, I’m an exotic dancer.”

I laughed. “Oh my God! See! That’s what I mean. I can’t understand your London English. Well, that makes even more sense. You definitely look more like a dancer than a track athlete.

I gave up while I was behind, since I FELT like a horse’s behind by then anyway. Oh well, just another day in the gym.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Barefoot Runner

It’s time for another runner’s tale.

It was the early summer of 1980. I was but 22 years old and impatiently waiting to get into the Air Force. During the 7 months it took me to transfer between the Marines and the Air Force I lived with my parents in our home on Beyer Road in Birch Run, Michigan. My wife and baby daughter were visiting family in the Philippines and I was missing them. They had been away for weeks.

To while away the days as I looked forward to my family’s return, I ran the rural roads of the area, feeling nervous about my forthcoming transition to my new service branch. My weight was down to less than 130 lbs, but I was feeling pretty good. I was lean and mean, and in pretty good running shape.

I don’t know if they still do it, but the old hometown used to have a homecoming celebration every year at the Buster Brown Memorial Park just up Beyer Rd from our house. Unfortunately, the park doesn’t exist on that site any longer. Now, that area and much of the fields and woods around it are no more, covered completely with concrete and hundreds of outlet stores. Truthfully, I hate it. As far as I’m concerned, Birch Run sold its soul for a buck. For me, it’s no longer my home; I don’t know the place anymore.

But back then the park was still just a large grassy area with some playground equipment. It also had a double wooden pavilion on a concrete slab, a pair of tennis courts and a couple of softball fields. Its parking lot was nothing but a square of blacktop and a whole lot of dusty gravel. They had advertised for weeks all the fun and competitive things that were going to happen at that year’s homecoming (actually, my brother informs me that it must have been the 4th of July); good clean family stuff like horseshoes, tennis, softball, and a foot race. I thought the race would be fun to try, so in preparation I mixed in a little speed work with my distance runs, but nothing special.

Most of my family showed up early that sunny Saturday morning so they could see me run. My dad had worked the nightshift at Saginaw Steering Gear during the four years I had competed in high school in the early 70s so this was one of the only opportunities he ever had to see me race. Actually, I’m pretty sure he had missed everyone of my track and cross-country meets. The fact that he was there I thought was pretty neat. It kind of felt like it used to when my parents came to see my all my little league games back in the 60s.

I signed up at a folding table and noticed that I seemed to be the only adult meaning to run. Most of the other racers were just kids—girls and boys aged 10 and up. One older teenage boy with a shock of blond hair caught my eye because he was warming up barefooted. I wandered over in his direction and listened to him talk to some other interested bystanders. He was 16-years-old and was bragging that he had trained for months without shoes; and according to him, the soles of his feet were as tough as leather. Just the same, I had a hard time believing that he would be able to run like that for long, since Beyer Rd was not a smooth blacktop, but pebbly surfaced asphalt. I was sure his feet were going to rip to shreds. His braggadocio rubbed me the wrong way. I was going to have to do something about that.

The organizers called us all out to the road to get the race started. I lined up behind the passel of excited kids and that young blonde-headed barefoot fellow. I was completely unconcerned with my so-called competition—in a word, I was overconfident. When the starter’s pistol went off I even lingered a few seconds to let the little mob of racers take off at what I knew was an unsustainable sprint. In no time at all, they were strung out in a line of 20 or so struggling “amateurs,” as I thought of them. I did notice however, that Mr. Barefoot was way out front—he was a good 60 or 70 yards ahead of me by the time I started to actually race. Seeing him so far out in front I figured it was time to get serious.

A mile—that’s all the race was supposed to be, so I knew I’d better start reeling in some people, especially Mr. Barefoot. Less than 100 yards into it and I had passed all the others but one—Mr. Barefoot. I concentrated on quickening my pace, and slowly but surely, I pulled him back to me. By the way, that’s runner’s talk for “I caught up to him.”

The turn around point was at a little bridge just past the Baylor’s house, which was the very next house after ours. Sheriff Cramer, driving the town’s cop car, was down there waiting for us. You know, I think he might still be “the top cop” in Birch Run even until today. If so, he must be in his 70’s by now. Or maybe they passed the position on to his progeny, kind of like the royals do with the succession of their crown.

I was only 20 or so yards behind the running barefoot boy when he made the turn just past the bridge. I studied him closely as we approached each other. I took some satisfaction in seeing that he was mincing along on what looked to be very sore feet. I smiled at him and waved, making sure to show him absolutely no fatigue, no weakness. In truth, I was beginning to feel a little pain myself, but I wasn’t going to show him that. My plan was to defeat his confidence before soundly beating him to the finish line.

I made the turn at Sheriff Cramer’s car and kicked my pace up a smidge to catch Barefoot Blondie. I was at his side by the time we passed my house about 100 yards from the bridge. For a moment, I stayed just behind him on his right shoulder and observed him. I was correct about his feet; he was stepping on them pretty gingerly. Still, I was amazed that he was able to continue running on them. He was in pain and it was affecting his gait—he was definitely slowing down. I thought I’d try to get into his head a little before crushing him physically.

“How you doing buddy?” I asked him without a trace of effort in my voice.

“Terrible!” he gasped.

“Oh really? …Good.” I smirked and took off in front of him in a spurt of speed.

“What!” I heard him say in an exhalation of outrage. At the same time, I heard his feet pick up his pace as he too kicked up his speed a notch. I cringed just listening to the fleshy padding sound that his unprotected soles made against the rough asphalt. Now, it was his turn to run just behind my right shoulder. I began to think that this kid was the real deal. He was showing a lot of moxie.

We practically sprinted as we passed the Stainforth’s place and then the Totten’s. Back then, a large block of woods several hundred yards long still existed from there up to a modest cabinet factory. We battled along back and forth along that wooded stretch right up to a little strip motel called the Cardinal Inn just after the little factory. After that, we were back to the edge of the park.

A wide sweeping curve in the road formed the northwest corner of the park; as we approached it I could hear the spectators start to shout encouragement at the two of us. Upon hearing them, Barefoot Boy made his move to go around me. I could hear his family and friends well over my own family members, and the juvenile egomaniac striving to pass me was obviously receiving inspiration from his enthusiastic vocal support. Damn it!

By then, both of us were breathing raggedly. He came abreast and I merely pumped my arms faster to stay slightly ahead. I had learned long before that the legs follow the arms. He was unable to get past me—I wouldn’t let him. I thought for sure he would start to cave, but no, he continued his charge.

As we came through the broad bend and into the last 150 yards into the homestretch I found another gear and kicked into it. Unbelievably, the kid sped up right along with me. By this time the onlookers were screaming at us. It was a blur of sound that worked to drive the two of us into new levels of effort. If I hadn’t been racing him, I would have been very impressed with the kid. Thing is, you can't beat someone while feeling "impressed" with them. I began to realize that I shouldn’t have taunted him. This young fellow was tough! Still, I knew down in my guts that I WOULD beat him.

The finish line was more than halfway to the top of a man made upgrade in the road that ultimately led to the I-75 overpass. As we got to the bottom of that hill we were side-by-side and panting like steam powered locomotives. The finish was the entrance to the park up the hill and to the left. It was going to make for a very awkward race conclusion, but all I could think of was getting there first. Mr. Barefoot, to his credit, had the exact same thing on his mind.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I was slightly ahead of him. To my surprise he was able to find the energy to surge ahead of me. I was shocked and enraged. With only 15 yards to go I forced my feet to almost double in turnover, again by using my arms. For that last 10 yards I ran as fast as I EVER have in my entire life, before or since. I flashed past the kid, bolted to the left and across the finish just 3 or 4 feet ahead of my fierce competitor.

Improbably, that little so-called fun-run turned out to be the most aggressive race I’ve ever run.

After the race notes:

While I was bent over holding my shorts at the knees I was amused to hear Barefoot Boy’s mom complain bitterly that I should not have been allowed to compete in the race against her "little boy" (He was actually physically bigger than me.) It reminded me of my little league days when my own parents became incensed because of an over-sized 12-year-old player, a catcher, on the other team. Parents WILL do and say those things I realized. I shook my head and smiled at their sour grapes.

Once I could speak normally again, I went over to the kid and shook his hand. His feet were hamburger. How he raced so strongly like that I have no idea. I told him that he might well have beaten me if he had worn running shoes.

Life is a funny thing. That was a mere pickup race, a throwaway run, and yet it turned out to be one of the defining memories of my racing career—and all because some young showoff was determined to win a little race in front of his family. Sorry, but I couldn’t let that happen, not with my own family watching!

I’m sure we both learned something from our experience—overconfidence (not curiosity) can kill the cat.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Idol Thoughts: The Final

That was a very disappointing show. There was no real breakout performance by either contestant. Blake showed what a true gentleman he is by winning the toss and STILL giving Jordin the choice of first or second. He is a good guy; you got to love him.

Blake started out with “You Give Love a Bad Name,” a song he did recently; and even more than last time, he really spiced it up with his trademark beatboxing. I loved it. For me, it was THE performance of the night. Randy has always found fault with his special talent, I suppose thinking that American Idol should only be a singing showcase. Surprisingly, Simon voiced approval, saying it was his best performance ever.

Jordin did Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” a very contemporary song. I think it was a mistake. Christina has a powerful voice, much more so than Jordin’s, and her comparatively weak rendition of the song drove home that point. She looked nervous, and uncomfortable. She forced the high riffs, something that was pointed out by Simon who said she shrieked at times. At the end of round one Simon in fact said that Blake won it.

Blake’s second song was Maroon 5’s “She Will be Loved.” At first, I liked his version of it more than the original. But then, I noticed that his voice is starting to show the strain. He is NOT a natural singer. The competition is taking its toll. As the song progressed he got flat at times and even hoarse. Simon said the song was too “safe” and a poor choice for a final show as it lacked impact. I think he needed to stay safe, exactly because his voice is at the end. This competition is ending just in time for Blake. Even so, I love how loosey-goosey the boy is. I can tell he is NOT desperate to win and for me, THAT is endearing.

Jordin’s number 2 was Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing,” a country tune. Randy had the audacity to say she sounded better than Martina. No way! I will say though, that Jordin did a good job of not pushing the high notes and staying within herself. The song came out quite nicely, although not as great as the three judges gushed that it did. Once again, their obvious choice is Jordin, just as it once was Melinda.

Blake’s final song, “This is My Now” is a sappy forgettable ballad written by the winners of the song writing competition. He struggled valiantly through it. Plain and simple, the song sucks. I can’t believe that was the best song written. Talk about “ho-hum.” As I said, his voice is all done. All three judges acknowledged that the song did not suit him.

Jordin of course also sang, “This is My Now.” Not even she could make it sound good. Obviously, she did not enjoy singing it. Her emotions got the better of her at the end of it, I believe due to her disappointment in her performance of it. It’s funny that none of the judges acknowledged her emotional stumble. Well, Randy did a little, but incorrectly attributed it to the emotion of seeing her parents—Wrong! She lost it once she believed she sounded less than perfect. The judges gushed all over themselves in praise of her efforts. I think she was shocked at their disingenuous response, but I wasn’t.

Randy and Simon, the singing “purists,” are obviously pushing for their new favorite. Paula loves everyone. She’s almost irrelevant. Simon went so far as to say that Jordin wiped the floor with Blake. What a jerk! Blake is a nice fellow and Simon didn’t need to get that personal, and it was personal.

As for me, I’m a Blake fan. I liked him before tonight and he gets my support. Based on the judge’s reviews it would seem that Jordin wins American Idol 2007. Personally, I HOPE Blake wins. After all, lets admit it—the show IS in actuality a popularity contest. It’s not just about the singing.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jonas' Club called "The Zone"

I go out only three or four times a month. A guy has to pace himself in this town or wear down to a frazzle.

For some time now I’ve been meaning to stop in at a friend’s club called The Zone on Field’s Avenue here in Angeles City. His name is Jonas, from Sweden, and his place is on the north side of Field’s about 50 meters from where it runs into Macarthur Boulevard.

Jonas is an interesting fellow. Very tall, around 6’4 or 6’5’, he’s in extremely youthful physical shape. He and I are about the same age; I think I might be older by a month or two, but I would have loved to have been in the shape he is now when I was 25. Back then, in MY questionable prime, I had the physique of an athlete, at least of a slender one. Unfortunately for me, big masculine muscles were not part of the package and they certainly aren't now!

But as for Jonas, the man is a horse. I see him in the gym all the time and the man lifts some huge weights. His physique reflects that strength; he certainly puts me to shame. I’m 49, but I like to say that I have the body type of a 35-year-old—woman that is, after she’s had 4 or 5 kids. Yup, that’s me! On second thought, maybe I’m not QUITE that bad, …YET.

Jonas dabbles in a lot of different dealings. Occasionally, he does commentary for TV broadcasts out of Manila covering 9-ball billiards tournaments. Pool playing is big in the Philippines, and it’s really big here with so many of the local bars equipped with pool tables. Even I play at times, although not well. Jonas definitely plays well; he was once a 9-ball champ in Europe. He certainly sounds like he knows what he’s talking about when he describes the table play on the tube—very impressive. Too bad, but his club is too small for a table. I’d love to see him show his stuff.

When I first met him more than 4 years ago I thought he was Russian. Before I found out he was Swedish he mentioned that he’d just spent several years in Russia as a fitness instructor. Watching him go about his workouts I could believe that, especially with his willingness to pass out free “pointers” on the correct way to use the gym equipment. His many other skills include several martial arts styles including boxing, karate and Muay Thai kick boxing. I don’t think he much practices anymore, but he certainly looks like he could.

Compared to most of the clubs in town Jonas’ club is rather small. What it DOES have is class. It’s very clean, even the restroom has a décor—post modern!

His sound system is superior, and happily for me, they NEVER play any form of modern urban music, also known as ghetto rap. My policy is that if any club plays more than two of those in a row then I’m out of there. I hate that crap. They play mostly European style dance music or similar stuff from the 80s. Ahhh! My kind of music. There is a small dance floor just inside the door, so if you feel like dancing a little there’s always at least a half-dozen cuties to groove with—dance with one, or all of them!

All of the clubs in these parts have girls and The Zone is no exception. Jonas has a beautiful bevy working for him. He complained to me that he’s requiring his new hostesses to sign a 6-month contract to ensure they stick around. It seems that many of his most gorgeous ladies have taken off with the customers. Secretly, I thought that was kind of cool. For me (and the girls!) it’s a success story, but for Jonas it’s just a pain in the ass.

The last time I was in there he was a bit preoccupied with business matters, but if you get the chance, he’s an interesting fellow to talk to. He’s been to a lot of places, done a lot of things, and knows a lot of stuff. Two weeks ago we started talking about subjects Scandinavian, since he is one of course. I proudly showed him the messed up palms of my hands declaring in jest, “I must have some Scandinavian blood since I have the “Viking Disease.” He’d never heard of my particular malady, but it resulted in an interesting dissertation from him on the history of the Vikings, a subject obviously near and dear to his heart. The guy knows his history, a man after MY own heart.

The front of his establishment is set up like an outdoor café—perfect for drinking a brewed cup of his unique house blend of coffee—Swedish, of course. It IS smooth, the first time I tasted it I had three cups. It’s hard to find good brewed java in these parts.

Finding a place that makes a good brewed cup of coffee around here is difficult. Most often its burned or bitter. The Zone’s coffee is better than good and it’s definitely not bitter. Talking about it, now I’m looking forward to my next visit.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Historical "Explosion" in the Gym

Sometimes I get a little too smug and reactionary for my own good. Today, in the gym, my friend, Saul, and I were giving each other a good-natured ribbing, as usual. I challenged him to go two days without using the F word, at least while he’s around me. About then one of his drinking buddies from Canada came in. Turns out, his name is Rob from Ottawa.

Shaking hands, I told him about my own connections to Canada. My mom was born in Toronto and we still have cousins there. On my dad’s side, we have family that was forced off their Toronto farmstead by the Brits (Tories) after they hung my triple great grandfather, Samuel Lount, in 1838 for treason.

Rob kicked in, almost with a snarl, that he had family killed also, only by Americans way back when. Now that sounded interesting to me so I pressed him a little for details. He said it was during the border skirmishes of the War of 1812.

“Interesting,” I told him, “my family name changed a little because of that war. Originally, our last name, which is Scottish in origin, was spelled with an “i,” but after we beat the British, in a swell of patriotism one of my ancestors changed the “i” to an “a” after “America.””

Rob could have cared less. “You didn’t win that war, we did—the British.”

Oh my! Fighting words! I practically exploded on him. Before I knew it, I was only a foot away from him, full of challenge and ready to debate.

“How can you possibly say the United States lost the War of 1812? We fought the Brits to a standstill,” I let him know vociferously.

To his credit, Rob didn’t back down and came back at me. “Well, we invaded (notice the “we?”) your soil and burned down your capital. Of course we won the war.”

I was having none of that… “Sure, they burned down the White House, but we ended up defeating that same British force as they marched on Baltimore. Hell, we killed their commander!

(“The Star Spangled Banner,” penned by Francis Scott Key, was written on a British ship during an attempt by those same “dastardly” English to force the capitulation of Baltimore by bombardment from the sea, which also failed, just like the British attempt to attack over land.)

I couldn’t help myself; I ranted on: “You know Rob, the English forced that war on us. They were upset that their sailors were deserting in huge numbers during their war with France whenever their ships made port in the U.S.. To teach us a lesson, they forced hundreds, maybe thousands of American sailors into “service” onto their navy and mercantile ships. It was a case of the Americans standing up to British bullying. They were basically enslaving our people on their ships. Damn, it was piracy man!”

Saul was getting a little uneasy with my tirade and tried to get me to ease up a little, but I wasn’t ready to calm down. I continued…

“Rob, ever hear of the Battle of New Orleans? Now THOSE particular British troops had just come across the Atlantic after beating the pants off of Napoleon. So, naturally, they were feeling their oats and THAT was their mistake—they underestimated us! Andrew Jackson smashed those overconfident Redbellies and threw them all back into the Gulf of Mexico.”

Saul was still trying to calm me down a little, “Phil, Phil…”

I kept at it, “To say the British won the War of 1812 is to re-write history man! WE won that war dude. Google it Rob.”

Rob, ever calm but looking a little hard-pressed, answered me in a placative manner, “Well, no one ever really wins in any war…”

I snorted, “Yah, Yah, right! If you say so…”

I started feeling a little foolish and began to think maybe I need to increase my meds by a dose or two. Later on, I approached him in a calmer manner and we talked of “normal” things. Still, I think he’s a bit leery of me now. I need to watch that.

Nevertheless, I was curious about his claim that the Brits won the War of 1812. Rob is a schoolteacher, he’s not an uneducated fellow, and so I did a little more research on what I thought was a very weird assertion. I mean, MAYBE I AM wrong... Sure enough, I found that Canadian history books actually claim that the Canadians and British defeated the Americans in that war! Ah Hah!

The reason they teach this quirky (or maybe not so quirky) account of the past is that at the beginning of the war the inexperienced and unprofessional American militia, mostly recruited from the unenthusiastic Northeast--lacking decent leadership and armed with poor weapons while dependent on even poorer logistics--were indeed forced into retreat. So, the fact that the half-hearted American attempt to invade Canadian territory WAS beaten back is THE reason Canadians teach and believe what they do concerning the result of the War of 1812.

Not yet knowing any of the above, but wanting to offer an olive branch, I endeavored to engage Rob in some less hostile conversation. I asked him if he’d ever heard of the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 in Toronto. He never had, and so has never heard of my triple great grandfather Samuel Lount, a good man who was found guilty of treason and hung by the Brits in 1838.

His last words on the gallows were, “"Be of good courage boys, I am not ashamed of anything I've done, I trust in God, and I'm going to die like a man."

Hmmm. Well, obviously Rob is an Anglophile, so I suppose it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to concentrate too much on some of the more distasteful aspects of past English rule in Canada, or that of their loyalist partners.

Funny what can come of a seemingly innocent meeting between two North Americans in a neutral location, such as a gym in Angeles City.

(Incidentally, in a way, Rob was right. By all accounts, the Treaty of Ghent basically reestablished status quo borders from before the beginning of the war, and The Brits agreed to stop fomenting and supporting the Indians against American settlers moving west. Their war with France was over and so they had already stopped kidnapping our sailors.

Even more interesting for me though, is that the War of 1812 caused a surge of nationalism in both Canada and the United States. No wonder Canadians teach their children that they won that war. In an important way, THEY did. If things had gone differently, there is a good chance that Canadians would be speaking American today! (grin)

But seriously, at the time, most Americans (like my name-changing forebears) felt a great sense of pride in having bested so often during that war the world’s most powerful armed force, and for the SECOND time, by TWO different generations!)

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why Angeles City?

We who write, pride ourselves on being detailed observers. Keeping in mind all the Internet surfers and Googlers out there, I like to keep an eye on my site-meter, because it tells me what people are trying to find out about. For instance, my most read post by far is my "Rizal vs. Bonifacio" commentary, especially during school season when the plagiarizers come out of the woodwork; I've had literally thousands of hits on that one. But not too far down the "searcher list" I see that a whole lot of folks are looking for info on AC living, and not just on how much apartments go for!

I've been here for more than 5 years now, so I feel somewhat qualified to offer a few observations--strictly as an on-looker of course--on "the darker side" of life here in "Sin City," Pampanga. I'm being a little facetious when I refer to this town as "Sin City," but being completely honest, THAT is exactly what it is. Virtually all of the hundreds of tourists who come here do so for the girls. Most come strictly for the sex, but many also fall in love with one of those comely lasses in spite of themselves. As you can imagine, the stories are legion.

As for the young ladies that come here, they arrive in their daily droves from all over the Philippines, and they come for exactly two things: 1) to earn money, and 2) to meet foreigners for a possible longterm relationship. Oh, and there's a third category: girls who come here to make money AND to meet their future husband.

So, why here? When it comes to the women what is so special about this place you might ask. Well, if you have ever been to the Philippines you wouldn't HAVE to ask. The women here are indeed special. Strictly on a looks basis, eight out of ten Filipinas, if not outright beautiful, are at the very least quite physically attractive, especially to Western eyes.

Then again, looks are not everything; and that brings us to THE most important aspect of the ladies here--their legendary sweetness. This is not a myth. It's interesting that even the most gorgeous girl here thinks she is just average, and THAT seems to be their most appealing quality. It seems that the only stuck up Filipinas in existence come from the very rich families, those that have been Westernized. You probably won't be subjected to one of those snobs anyway, although I have met a few snobbish ones outside of their home country AFTER they had lost that special unpretentious "Filipina quality."

Some of the AC girls working in one of the many bars might SEEM snobby, but in reality they are just extremely shy. This is certainly true for many of the girls that first arrive in Angeles City from one of the many Philippines provinces. Perhaps they are unsure of their English, or they haven't gotten used to being around partying foreigners, many of whom can be very forward and boisterous. This country is an extremely conservative place, so the newly arrived young ladies have to get their sea legs under them first. Once they learn how to interact though, watch out!

Having said all that, the luckiest people on earth are the men of the Philippines. Funny thing is, few of them realize it UNTIL they leave here and learn that the rest of the world's women are not nearly so sweet and loving as those they took for granted back home. Without exception, all my single stateside Filipino pals could not wait to come back here to get themselves their life mate.

You would think the girls here would play even a little hard-to-get, but it almost never happens that way. It's just not their nature, at least not until they leave the country and learn how truly desirable they are. (There's a lesson to be learned from that fellas!)

Getting back to the Angeles City angle, believe it or not, even an old ugly over-weight foreigner can come here to live and find himself a beautiful teenage beauty to be his "live in," or if he so wants, to be his loving bride. These are not idle words. I can think of several 50 and 60 year olds who have settled down with their very own little local lovely lady. Most have two or more children to show for their relationship "arrangement."

Just to make my point I'll give you THE most extreme example I can think of. Let's see, one of my buddies, I'll call him Ed, will be 79 next month. He proudly has an 18 year old girlfriend live-in who takes care of him and chases after him as if he was some 25 year old lady killer. Yes, my friends, she is jealous and worried that he might be two-timing her. Is she for real? Is she just after his money? Who knows anymore? And Ed really doesn't care. The point is Ed is loving life and he has got to be the youngest acting old man his age I've ever met. In the States he'd be looked at as a joke, as a ridiculous caricature, but not so here. Over here he's just a typical retiree.

I'll write more in future posts on this subject. I've met and "interviewed" scores of fellow foreigners and the girls they come here to meet, party with, and or settle down with, and there is a story behind each.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Idol Thoughts: Three Left

Update: Melinda is singing her goodbyes as I start writing this. Simon let the cat out of the bag for me half way through the show. What a pouty boy he is! His girl, Melinda, didn't make it to the final and he was NOT happy about that. As for me, I am happy to be wrong. I enjoy watching Blake, I loved how close he is with his parents, especially with his pops. Melinda will go on with her career and I'm sure it will be brilliant. If Elliott Yamin's 3rd place finish last year is any indication of what she can expect, then she can expect a lot. This sounds sappy, but seeing this year's American Idol has really made me proud of my country. The contestants have comported themselves well and I've not haven't "hated" anyone except Simon, and that's okay, THAT is his job! I'm looking forward to next week's final with Jordin and Blake. I hope Blake wins it all, but seeing how loose he is, I think he feels like he's already won. I really like this kid. He isn't the pure singer that Jordin is, BUT he IS a pure entertainer. Go Blake!

The three idols left duked it out tonight on semi-final week. Each sang three songs. A song for each was chosen by one of the judges, then by the producers, and the final song was picked by the singers.

We are getting down to the nitty-gritty and the contestants know it. I'm noticing now though that these three are now realizing that it really doesn't matter anymore who actually wins next week. History has shown that in effect they HAVE made it. All three will go on to become well-paid stars.

Round 1.

1. Jordin kicked it off with "Wishing On a Star" chosen by Simon. The 17-year-old said she'd never heard it before. 49-year-old me was thinking, 'How could that be!" Oh well. Anyway, she sang it beautifully. The girl is learning because she never pushed a single note tonight, a problem she's had in the past. I loved it. Simon was the only naysayer claiming that she should have sung it with a less jazzy arrangement. He was full of it. Obviously, he's pushing for Melinda.

1. Blake sung Paula's choice of "Roxanne" and he did it with flair as always. Blake has a lower range than Sting, but actually I prefer Blake's rendition. Sorry Sting. He did have a couple moments where I noticed he went flat, but ever the perfect performer, he recovered well. The song fit his voice and style well. Mr. Anti-Blake, Simon, made the ridiculous comment that he thought Blake didn't sing the song as well as Sting. What a jerk.

1. Melinda's first song was chosen by Randy and was "I Believe..." done originally by Whitney Houston. It really was an unfair choice since Whitney has a much higher range than Melinda, and her attempt to sing it showed that clearly. With her professional background she managed to pull it off though. All three judges loved it, finding nothing wrong with it at all. It is so obvious that the judges are all pulling for her.

Simon, when asked who was ahead at the end of round 1 naturally said Melinda. Give me a break!

Round 2.

2. Jordin: Her second was "She Works Hard For the Money." I had to laugh as she tried to move around on those platform shoes. She's already about 6 foot tall and those shoes must have been making her nose bleed. Next time she wears them she should just stand and sing and not try to prance around--just a suggestion. Just as song number one, she sang this one perfectly.

2.
Blake: The producers chose a fairly contemporary one for him called "This Love" by Maroon 5. I've always liked the song and Blake did it justice. He seemed a little late a few times with the lyrics, still it sounded great. Once again, Simon accused him of a copy-cat performance. He is really intent on getting Melinda to the top position. I'm beginning to find that tiresome.

2.
Melinda: "Nut Bush City Limits," a free-wheeling song by Ike and Tina Turner was not the perfect choice for her. Tina used to do this song with a shimmy wearing a short sexy mini-skirt and Melinda is NOT all about that. She did a great job with that powerful voice, as usual, but I just wasn't entertained. Surprise! The judges loved it! At this point Melinda can do no wrong by these three. They are shamelessly pushing their girl, especially Simon.

Not wanting to be TOO obvious, Simon claimed that the winner of round 2 was a tie. For me, Jordin slightly edged out Blake.


Round 3.

3. Jordin, "the young & the beautiful," chose a Ben E King 60's song called "I Who Have Nothing," which I believe she has already sung once before. Maybe I'm wrong. At first, I wondered why she would choose such an oldy, but I figured it out as she went into the finish. Wow! She really showcased her abilities and ended up impressing me. Predictably, Simon said the song was too old fashioned for her. Once again, he undercut a great performance attempting to influence the voting for Melinda.

3.
Blake's final one was "When I Get You Alone." It sounded a little like his previous song, but I have to say that the boy has pizazz. He IS an entertainer, a pure showman. He gets my vote on that alone. Surprisingly, Simon gave Blake his due praising his risk-taking and for his fun-loving stage presence. Randy gave Blake a negative vibe while "saying" he liked the performance. Clearly, Randy does not "feel" Blake as much as he does his favorite, Melinda.

3.
Melinda did a hokey version of "I Am a Woman," and it was just okay, definitely not thrilling. Once again, naturally all 3 judges LOVED it! Simon raved over her consistency, and its true. The girl never gives a bad performance.

If Randy, Paula and Simon could, they would have already inaugurated Melinda as the 2007 American Idol. I've changed my mind about her being my favorite now because after tonight I now can see that although she is good, she is NOT the best performer. That crown has to go to Blake, closely followed by Jordin. If I had my way, Blake and Jordin would be in the finals next week. Alas, that will not happen. What WILL happen is that Blake will be voted out tomorrow, partly due to the judges continuous sniping at him, but mostly because most of Lakisha's fans will vote for either Melinda or Jordin. If I was going to pay to go see one of them in concert it would be Blake, hands down. Anyway, I'm sure we'll see Jordin and Melinda next week with Blake watching like all the rest of us.

PhilippinePhil’s order of merit for tonight:

1. Jordin
2. Blake
3. Melinda

Tomorrow's Fallen Idol will probably be:

Blake

The American Idol will be:

Melinda

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“Sanctuary” for illegals? "Open Borders?"

Recently I watched a cable news show interview with a Catholic nun involved with “sheltering” some Mexican or Latin American illegal aliens in her church. The crux of her argument in defense of her own unlawful actions is the New Testament passage where Jesus says, “When I was hungry you fed me…, when I was thirsty you gave me drink…, when I was homeless you sheltered me…”

It seems that Catholic churches across the country are now buying into what I think is a defective moral argument that “the church” should be providing “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants. Even though she is helping people break the law, the unapologetic nun said her actions and that of her church are all about being humane. I couldn’t agree with her less.

I’m not heartless. I’m all for helping people in need, but I’m also for upholding the law, especially our more-than-reasonable immigration laws. After all, these aren’t unjust laws worthy of civil disobedience like slavery or “Jim Crow.” To a reasonable person it makes sense that all countries have a natural right to control their borders and their immigration flow. Doing anything else amounts to anarchy and the eventual end of our civilization, as we know it. I’d love to ask that silly nun if that’s what she really wants.

And then there is the “family card!” People who break ANY of our laws do so at their own risk, AND in doing so, THEY put their families’ well-being at risk as well. The rationale that illegal immigrant families should not be made to suffer once they are in-country is deeply flawed. If we go by that reasoning then we would never “inconvenience” any perpetrator of any crime with imprisonment, since nearly everyone, even common criminals, have families. Therefore, using the “family card” as an excuse not to prosecute illegals establishes an unworkable precedent that if followed, protects ALL criminals.

Unfortunately, the US Constitution helps to facilitate this “family card” argument, particularly when we do not pursue illegals for years and then over those years they have children. Our statutes are somewhat unique in the world in that anyone born on US soil is considered a US citizen. It’s a loophole used by many to justify their own continued unlawful presence. They point to their American-born children and use those little jus soli citizens to justify their unauthorized stay. It sounds callous, but that’s not our problem. Once again, THEY made a decision that harms THEIR family.

Few countries besides the USA concern themselves with these types of factors when making immigration decisions. For instance, try having a child in a country like Japan (and a host of others) and see what happens. Both you AND your non-Japanese citizen baby will be “shown the door,” and rightly so.

Living outside the United States, I am well aware that if officials stop me for any reason that I must identify myself as a foreigner and provide documentation of my status. I find it maddening that the United States is the ONLY place where it is common policy in many of its cities and counties NOT to request proof of lawful residency of a person detained by police. Are we nuts?

I pass by the American Embassy frequently, and the lines of hopefuls applying for US entry are ALWAYS there, rain or shine. For the most part, these people’s applications are denied, usually on the capricious whim of some bureaucrat. Just the same, the lines never stop forming. This is true at American embassies and consulates all over the globe, and yet, because we have a long, difficult-to-protect border, people south of it figure they can just jump in line ahead of all the thousands of worldwide applicants duly waiting their turn. I find this maddeningly unjust, Geraldo Rivera be damned.

Fox News’ Rivera continuously makes the passionate contention that most of the millions of illegal immigrants are good people and thus should be allowed to stay. In effect, his argument is basically one of statue of limitations; to all intents and purposes he says they should be allowed to “get away” with their law breaking by simply waiting out the system. The problem with this is that the world is filled with “good people,” so why don’t we just let them ALL come? Should there be no limits Geraldo—no controls over whom and how many are allowed to enter?

The nun responded to a final question, and her astonishing answer made me feel like becoming a Baptist.

“Sister, do you believe the United States would be right in protecting its borders from further illegal entries?”

Without a moment’s hesitation she answered with complete self-assured sanctimony:

“NO!”

When I heard what seemed to me to be a most unreasonable response, my blood ran cold with indignation and dread. The indignation is easy to explain (at least to sane people!), but the dread comes of the nun’s casually spoken irrational answer. Her views may well reflect those of a sizable demographic that basically advocates “open borders.” As far as I know, no other nation of note has such a thing in place—how could they and continue to exist?

And THAT is exactly my point!

Do any Baptists or Presbyterians believe in that kind of harebrained pap? If not, where do I sign up! (Just kidding Mom).

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