Thursday, November 26, 2009

it can SUCK to be an expatriate American here!

My youngest needs a new passport. Sometimes these things just sneak up on you and that’s what happened this time. My ex sent me a text a couple months ago telling me it was time to replace our youngest’s unexpectedly expired one, so I did the research using information on the RAO website maintained by our local embassy warden. It all seemed pretty straight forward. I looked at what is required for children in the custody of one parent and there didn’t seem much to it—an extra simple form and a legal custody document.

One of the FEW good things, as far as I am concerned, about the American embassy here is that periodically they do outreaches to various sites around the country so that we don’t have to go there. That’s always a good thing since going to the embassy in Manila is painful. Aside from the ugly downtown traffic I hate the way I feel when I’m there in the embassy—I certainly do NOT feel welcome. In fact, just the sight of that building causes my blood pressure to go up; and I’m not the only American living here that feels that way.

Many of us get the impression that WE are a pain in their collective ass. How much easier would their job be if WE weren’t here? I’ve asked expatriates from other countries living here if they feel estranged in their own embassy and they have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m sure it’s because ours is so big and always full of “customers.” “Besieged” is the word that comes to mind whenever I see the hordes of people trying to get inside whenever I pass by that place. And when I’m one of those unfortunates trying to get in I always get an uneasy feeling, like that of an untrustworthy farm animal being processed into a factory for rendering.

Travelling with small kids to the heart of Manila is NOT fun and can be risky if not dangerous. For example, just last week one of my elderly and physically more fragile veteran clients was forced by the VA to go to the outpatient clinic for a pension exam and had his wallet lifted on the train. He was lucky that something worse didn’t happen, for there are many potential pitfalls in making one’s way through that town.

Wanting to avoid that sort of possible unpleasantness, my ex and I were determined to get our girl’s passport application done in one fell swoop here at the outreach. My ex even called the embassy customer service line several times just to make sure all was in order. Reassured that all SHOULD go smoothly I went ahead and scheduled a full line up of veteran clients at my morning gig at the VFW on the day of the outreach.

Alas, it was almost 10 am when my ex showed up at the office looking stressed out and tightlipped. She asked if I couldn’t go with her back to the outreach from where she had just come. Things had NOT gone well for her there evidently. I should have known.

‘Oh great! THAT figures!’

Luckily, my replacement-in-training was there, and, thankfully, he's an exceptionally quick study to the service officer business. I handed off to him and took off with my ex. In the car she explained that the Filipino fellow that she ended up in front of took a quick look at her forms and then stubbornly insisted that “The father MUST come here. If he can’t make it then you’ll have to come to the embassy some other day. Besides, it’s almost 11 o’clock and that’s when we shut down.”

My ex said he refused to look at any of the papers she had, including her American passport and the divorce decree showing that she had custody of our girls; and in the condescending fashion that local bureaucrats typically affect here he sent her away. By the time I got there I was in a silent rage. She pointed out the smug fellow and I stood in front of him trying to maintain control of myself; however, I ended up doing a horrible job of that.

I got a terse sentence or two out and he stopped looking at my face. I’m sure it’s because he could see the fury there that matched the trembling anger in my voice.

“I don’t understand the problem,” I told him. “We are divorced. The decree states that SHE has custody of the girls, so WHY must I be here? That’s not the information we got from your customer service or from the internet!”

At that point he passed the papers over to the American woman sitting at his side. He mumbled something that I could not understand. He dismissed me the same way that he had dismissed my ex earlier. I needed to get away from that man before I exploded. I walked to the front of the table to remove myself from his indifferent galling presence. I didn’t like him and he obviously did not think much of us. From the looks of him lunch was foremost on his mind.

The attitude of the female American consular officer was like day to his night. She was wonderfully professional. Within seconds my seething anger was doused into submission. She listened to us, read through our documents and in a courteously friendly fashion explained what was needed.

“Sir, I’ve read through this decree and although it says she has custody it doesn’t mention sole legal custody, which is the requirement if she is going to be able to be a single parent signer. Maybe you can find where it says that and show it to me?”

“Maam, let’s not parse. If we don’t have what we need there to make the mother the sole signer then what do we need to get my girl her passport so she can get the heck out of this country?”

“No problem sir. Just sign here."

It was as easy as that. I signed on the line and all was well. In fact, I finished signing and looked up at her with a nod of my head. She then went one step further which made me a fan for life—she smiled at me and apologized. Completely tamed and even chastened, I in turn, also told her that I was sorry. THAT is how things SHOULD be done. THAT woman should be an ambassador some day. I love her!

So two things:

1) Why are there locals doing the work of “assisting” Americans applying for American citizens services, especially one like THAT fellow? In this case in particular the man was dismissive and officious, something that I’ve gotten used to in dealing with local government institutions as a second class non-citizen here, but I shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of indifferent attitude when dealing with my own embassy.

2) If you are a single parent here with custody of your children, before trying to apply for a new passport for them, ensure that you have a certified legal document showing “sole legal custody.” If THOSE THREE WORDS are NOT included in your divorce documents and you show up with an application for your child’s new passport, they will shrug and tell you to come back with either the other parent or with a document showing “SOLE LEGAL CUSTODY.”

Oh, and there is a third thing: Mr. smug man insisted that my ex come up with a photo album showing my girl as she has aged from the time of the first passport. No one informed my ex of that requirement when she called embassy customer service and I saw nothing like that in the embassy warden’s info site. It was explained to me that we have to suffer with this "extra" requirement due to the extremely fraudulent nature of this place. I’m positive parents in the US don’t have to worry about doing such a thing. I have no idea what they would do if no pictures like that exist, perhaps simply deny issue of the passport in that arrogantly dismissive, infuriating way that this round faced guy did. My ex had to send someone all the way back out to her far distant town to get an album of photos. I was just leaving the outreach as it neared the 11 am closing when my ex’s husband hurried through the hotel door with the necessary album. It had taken him more than two hours to make the round trip.

Like I said, that professional consular lady notwithstanding, my embassy sucks; or on the flip, it can SUCK to be an expatriate American here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Spear Farm" meets "The Great Thumb Fire of 1881"

My father has been gone for more than a year now. Acknowledging that no one lives forever, nine years ago I spent several days interviewing him, mostly interested in hearing about his early life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

During that period a major part of his life took place on “The Spear Farm,” a plot of 160 acres a few miles east of Kingston, Michigan on the north side of M46. For most of my childhood this farm was a mystical, almost legendary place; I’d listen intently whenever Dad spoke of life there, what it was like during his boyhood summers working on the farm in the 30s and 40s. To this day that sandy rolling parcel of Michigan’s central “Thumb” region continues to be an important part of the Spear family legacy; even though it was sold off 30 years ago by greedy opportunists in the family, most of them not even Spear’s.

Occasionally I open the transcripted interview, and I did so again about a week ago. Near the beginning of it Dad and I discuss a few memories about the old place where he had been born in a big old feather bed in a downstairs bedroom on May 10, 1928.

Phil....... I remember the area way out in the back...the cedar swamp. It was so spooky...all the skulls, ribs and white bones from the skeletons of all the animals that had been hauled back in there since...when did they start hauling their dead animals in there? From the time the farm first started, right? What year did the farm start?

Dad..... It had to be in the the late 1800's. I remember that it was declared a centennial farm, but I can't remember when. My dad was born in 1897 and he was still a young man when they were still clearing land. They didn't actually buy that place till after the fire of.... 1893... was it?
Phil..... There was a forest fire?

Dad...... Yeah. In the late 1800's a forest fire swept from one side of Michigan all the way across to the other. And all the massive white pine forests just roared with flame.

Phil..... I remember seeing a stump right behind the house (toward the north side) was a huge thing, at least 5, 6 feet across.

Dad..... There was a bigger one, the charred remains of a stump that was so full of pitch, because it was pine, that it never did decay, even after all those years. It was from that big Michigan fire way back in the cedar swamp. It came from the time when there was nothing but giant white pine all across the state

For years I’ve been meaning to research this mysterious forest fire spoken of by my dad in the interview. Other than his occasional mentioning of it over the years, I had never heard of such a thing, even during the four plus years that I’d lived in that state back in the 70s while attending high school. According to family lore carried forward by Dad, the alleged conflagration had apparently ravaged much of Michigan sometime towards the end of the 1800s.

I’ve said this before, but it gets truer every time I say it: the internet is a wonderful thing. My very first search provided two possibilities—the Great Michigan Fire of 1871 and the Thumb Fire of 1881. From my internet reading I ruled out the 1871 event as having been the cause of the blackened stumps on The Spear Farm. Considering the areas affected in both fires I figure that the fire my father must have been referring to was The Great Thumb fire of 1881. Then again, it’s possible that the farm was affected by both, but surely the stumps resulted from that in ’81.

It had been extremely hot and dry toward the end of the summer of that year; in fact newspaper accounts of the fire talk about the extreme drought conditions. Wikipedia sparingly describes the fire, its causes and effects as follows:

Thumb Fire From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The great Thumb Fire took place on September 5, 1881
the Thumb area of Michigan in the United States. The fire, which burned over a million acres in less than a day, was the consequence of drought, hurricane-force winds, heat, the after-effects of the Port Huron Fire of 1871 and the ecological damage wrought by the era's logging techniques.

The blaze, also called the Great Thumb Fire, the Great Forest Fire of 1881 and the Huron Fire, killed 282 people in
Sanilac, Lapeer, Tuscola and Huron counties. The damage estimate was $2,347,000.

The Thumb Fire, which reportedly began in Tuscola County, was allegedly the first natural disaster served by the
American Red Cross.

A more detailed account of The Great Thumb Fire is on this website, titled “The Great Fires of 1871 and 1881.” From this and other sites it’s obvious that it was the 1881 fire that rolled through The Spear Farm and left the ancient blackened pine stumps still in existence a century later. The 1881 fire was no small-scale disaster; indeed, it was one of the first great “natural” calamities ever to befall the United States, although, in reality, its causes were anything but natural. The death and destruction was horrendous, the human interest stories are horrifically spellbinding and heartrending. You can read about them on this site, with excerpts posted by Tim Taugher of the 1881 national newspaper accounts of the time.

In trying to find out if any actual Spears had been much affected by the inferno I became frustrated realizing how little our family knows about the early timeline of The Farm’s developmental period. I suppose not many of the farming Spears ever gave much thought to it; being practical folk, that stuff just wasn’t important to them. In fact it’s only been relatively recent that we began to learn about our ancestry at all, a real shame considering how extraordinary it’s turned out to be thanks to the outstanding efforts of the family genealogist, Ted Spear. Thanks Cousin Ted.

The entrance to The Spear Farm taken from M46. There wasn't much left. The barns and house had long since burned down by arsonists. Only a few collapsing outbuildings remained when this was taken in September 2000.

It was in the late 1840s that the very first land deed ever issued on that particular plot of land was issued to my Great Great Uncle Seth Lount. Seth had volunteered at a very tender age, at only 17 or 18, to fight for his country in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He survived that adventure and upon his return to Michigan was compensated with the 160 acres that would eventually become The Spear Farm. I suppose it could have been called The Lount Farm, or The Seth Lount Farm; but I doubt that Uncle Seth ever actually worked its land.

In 1849, at the time that Seth took possession of those 160 acres, it was likely still covered thickly with Great Easter White Pines, gigantic trees that grow upwards of 150 feet high and 5 to 6 wide at the base. Fully mature they are towering monsters, the Sequoias of the East. Thousands of square miles of forests of these massive behemoths would block the sun from reaching the ground. In the days before hordes of lumbermen cut them down en masse, walking through those primeval forests would have been a dark, almost menacing experience; nothing at all like the pastoral Michigan that exists today. An irony is that back then, compared to today, settlers would have had a lot less wild game to shoot at; thick lightless forests do not support woodland creatures like turkey and whitetail like the tamer deciduous woodlots and sunny fields of today do.

I remember clearly one large pine tree, still original to the early days of the farmstead. It stood alone and proud in the center of a field at the end of “the lane,” the only reason it was allowed to continue to be there was due to its position exactly in the center of a huge pile of field stones. This cairn was massive in its own right. Over the years, as the stones came to the surface from each season’s plowing and tilling, the Spear boys would carry them to the center of the field and toss them up around the tree. I used to wonder what existed first—that pile of stones or the tree. My money was on the tree. I figured that rather than spend the effort of cutting it down and uprooting it; they opted instead to pile each year’s harvest of stones around it. There is no reason why that amazingly beautiful tree standing atop its mini rock mountain wouldn’t still be there today. I wonder if it is. I hope so.

"The Lane, Sep 2000"

Standing at the entrance of what was once the access road leading into the heart of the Spear Farm.

Anyway, as I said, I doubt that Uncle Seth ever worked the place. Sometime in the late 1850s, when he sold it to his sister and brother-in-law, Uncle Seth was still only in his late 20s and not yet married. The fact that Seth was still single is what tells me that he hadn’t yet tried to cultivate that land located just inside the western border of Sanilac County within shouting distance of Tuscola County. I’m pretty sure it was located in the township of LaMotte. A single man would have been completely overwhelmed by the immense tasks at hand. Settlers attained farmer status only after getting a patch of land cleared of trees and stumps enough to get some seed into the ground; the more people working at getting that done the better. Thus, a primary duty of a farm wife was to produce children to help work the farm—no wife meant no kids, which meant no farmhands to clear fields, plant crops and tend animals.

It was just as well, as his land received for his wartime service became his ticket to adventure. Seth got word from his two brothers out west that gold was to be had; they urged him to join them. Gold fever, once caught, is a powerful thing; so, he unloaded his 160 acres to Mary and Moses Spear, my greatx2 grandparents. Seth used the money to go to California to seek his fortune. Alas, he never returned and he definitely did not make his fortune. (More on Uncle Seth in a future post).

The next question that remains unanswered: Were Grandma Mary and Grandpa Moses the ones to first settle that acreage just inside the Sanilac County line? I’m thinking that they didn’t, since both are buried in Pontiac in the Metropolitan Detroit area.

Pontiac was Mary and Moses’ home for much of their lives. A son, George (my great grandfather), was born to them in their apartment over the Oakland County jail in the county seat of Pontiac in 1850. His birthplace became the source of a lot of family jokes, that according to my dad. At the time of George’s birth, his father, Moses, was the sheriff of Oakland County.

Moses, born in 1807, died in 1890; while Mary, born in 1822, daughter of the Canadian patriot martyr Samuel Lount, died ten years later in 1900. Both Moses and Mary are buried together in Pontiac. That tells me that they probably never made their home up north on the land they bought from Seth; although, I do notice in the family bible that Mary did pass away in Lamotte Township in Sanilac County. From that, it would seem that Mary died on the Spear farm with her son, George, in attendance; or very close to the farm, since I believe that is where it's located.

George, the Spear boy born over the Pontiac jail in 1850, married late in life. In 1893, already middle-aged at 43, he said his “I do’s” to a woman 19 years his junior. That woman was 24 year old Hettie Green, my great grandmother, born in 1869. I believe it was the two of them that finally began the arduous process of clearing land to turn Seth’s original property into a working farm. Chances are either Seth or Moses had already sold off most of the pine to the lumber companies; even so, it would likely have been covered with stumps and unsightly piles of snags and old waste wood, although much of that was likely consumed by the 1881 fire. Much of Michigan was made ugly by the aftermath of the hungry axes and saws of her famous lumberjacks. It was up to the settlers to clean it up and make the newly exposed land suitable to grow crops and raise pasture animals.

George and Hettie’s first child, a boy, was born in 1894; for quite some time after that much of the work must have been done by George alone or with the aid of neighbors and family, or even with Grandma’s help. The boys, along with one girl, kept coming, eight children in all, with the last one, named after his Uncle Seth, arriving in 1910.

Now then, I think I have my answer to the question that started me on this quest for family knowledge, that question being whether or not any Spears were affected by The Great Thumb Fire of 1881. My father’s answer was certainly correct, that his Grandpa George probably didn’t buy the land from his mother until AFTER the fire of 1881, and so, most fortunately, there were no Spears present when that intense firestorm swept across the land that would eventually become The Spear Farm. If there had been Spears present, it’s a certainty that the memory of the event would have been seared into our family lore, but other than those charred ancient white pine stumps, it isn’t—case closed.

And Ted, and any other family members who happen to read this, if you can make this account more detailed and correct, please contact me at my email or comment right here on this post. Thanks!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Major Hasan, traitor, defector, murderer, dead man walking?

Officers and enlisted men are evidently coming out of the woodwork now, all describing their own individual run-ins with Major Hasan when they personally experienced this American Jihadist’s pro-suicide bomber proclamations and anti-“War on Islamic Terror” tirades. Evidently, this murdering double-crossing traitor had been spouting off like Bin Laden on Al Jazeera for years now; yet the US Army in all its PC wisdom decided not only NOT to investigate his loyalty and reliability, but to award him with the rank of major.

(Were they trying to modify his obvious questionable allegiance by “giving” him rank? Was it a “bribe?” If so, it didn’t work!)

I can guarantee that along the way to his 100-round shooting rampage (just two buildings away from where my daughter and son-in-law were at the time!) that a lot of troops complained to their superiors about this Islamic nut job. Not only that, but I’d be totally surprised if more than a couple of them subjected to his sickening invective didn’t challenge him from 6 inches from his grill. I’m a hot head, so you can bet I would have.

Hasan’s family (who have described their disgraced family member as a “great American) say that he was under a lot of pressure due to what they term as harassment. Well, no wonder! THAT would have been ME—a harasser—a BIG TIME harasser. I would have “harassed” the Jihadist hell out of him. The wonder is that no one did MORE than harass him. Someone should have knocked him on his treasonous ass.

I have been known to engage in this kind of “harassment” before, if by harassment you mean speaking out against bullshit once identified as such. The last time I did this is while I was on active duty late in 2001 at the Air Mobility Warfare Center located on Fort Dix, New Jersey. As it turned out, I had only a half year left until the end of my 27 year career. Read on:

Not long after 9-11 when I was still in the Air Force I attended a class on terrorism given by one of our security forces sergeants. At the time I was a senior master sergeant with well over 26 years of active service under my belt. The class was pretty predictable. It all went exactly as expected, UNTIL the sergeant flashed up onto the screen his PowerPoint slide entitled “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter!”

‘Uh oh.’

Suddenly, I became extremely wary. This sergeant was regurgitating the kind of moral equivalency crap that so-called progressives love to use when making their typical anti-American invectives. I could feel every muscle in my body abruptly tense up. I held my tongue to see where this was going; but I knew it wasn’t going to take much to set me off. And sure enough, the very next slide did exactly that.

The sergeant’s next slide contained two pictures; the top one was George Washington, underneath that great man was Yasser Arafat. At that, the bile literally leaped into the top of my throat. ‘NO WAY!’

Unbelievably (to me) the staff sergeant actually began to make the argument that there was no real difference between Washington and Arafat, at least as far as how the Brits saw Washington as compared to the way the Israelis see Arafat. (The corrupt Arafat was still alive the time).

I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood up and stopped the lecture.

“Excuse me! Do you know ANYTHING at all about George Washington?”

“Yes senior, I believe I do…”

“NO, I don’t think you DO! How many acts of terrorism did George Washington plan, carry out or encourage? The answer is NONE! Arafat IS a terrorist. He embraces it; to him, it’s a valid political and tactical tool. General Washington was a great man that would NEVER even contemplate such a thing. He never attacked innocents. He was a man of honor…”

With Washington being my favorite American of all time, I was definitely on my high horse by this time and just getting started. I noticed several of the officers attending the class were actually angry with me; they turned in their seats and stared at me as if I was an impertinent petulant child. One of them, I believe he was a major or lieutenant colonel, interrupted my outburst.

“Sergeant, I think he’s got a point. I mean he’s talking about how their people LOOK at THEIR leaders and THEIR heroes. We look at Washington the same way that Palestinians look at Arafat. That’s all he’s saying.”

“Let me get this straight sir. Do you REALLY think it APPROPRIATE in an official US Air Force class on terrorism to make a moral equivalency comparison between the greatest American of all time and THAT contemptible ACTUAL terrorist Arafat? Are you kidding me Sir! Are you really saying that?”

Oops, that made him mad. He turned away, shaking his head disgustedly as if I was some kind of thickheaded moron. I didn’t care.

At that point I turned back to the instructor.

“Tell me this Staff Sergeant, did you come up with this slide arrangement, OR, are these official slides from Command? Because regardless, I intend to make a formal complaint. There’s no way that George Washington should EVER in ANY shape fashion or form be called a terrorist or be compared to one. You tell me ONE act of terror that he or any of his troops was EVER involved in. Just ONE!...”

It was then that the sergeant admitted that he was the one to write in those particular slides. Seeing the depth of my outrage and realizing that I probably had a pretty good point, he became placatory. Either that or he just wanted me to shut up so he could continue his class. He did make me a promise though. Relenting, he held his hands up in supplication.

“Senior, I will definitely take out the offending slides. I will no longer compare Washington to Arafat.”
“Thanks, that’s all I’m asking. I’ll sit down and shut up now.”

I wonder how many times Hasan’s fellow officers had similar “discussions” with him? I hope many. I would bet there were a lot. If so, THAT could be the reason his hatred finally congealed to the point that he sought to kill people like me, who dared to confront and challenge him. The shame is that the army allowed this defective defector to continue to serve in OUR uniform. Someone needs to be fired over this, more than one in fact.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Michael Jackson’s “This is it.” And IT really IS!

I had no intention of going to see this flick. But, my girls were over for a visit and my oldest asked if we could go see a movie.

Checking the online Robinson’s movie schedule I told her, “No Isabel, they are only showing three scary ones and the Michael Jackson movie.”

In a heartbeat they began to jump up and down and tugging at my T-shirt in unison they shouted excitedly, “Yes! Yes! We want to see Michael Jackson! We want to see Michael Jackson! Yes! Yes! Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson!”

Using the old chanting ploy, they destroyed my will to resist. I have a hard time saying no to my girls anyway, but when they chant… well, it’s hopeless. So, that was it. The Michael Jackson movie would be the one we’d watch.

I used to think the world of MJ, loved his music big time, but two things changed how I felt about the guy: first, when he went through that crotch grabbing phase, made all the more raunchy when he wore that bright yellow codpiece diaper thingy on stage—Geez that was just creepy; and of course second, when all the pedophile stuff came out. With all that, he pretty much became a joke to me, a punch line on The Tonight Show. It got to the point that I didn’t even care to hear his music anymore.

So, when the news came out last June that he had died, I was only a little surprised and mostly just shrugged off how I felt about it, lumping him in with all the other super rich self-indulgent drug-taking dopey celebrities who have passed on similarly. Elvis Presley, Heath Ledger, Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Janis Joplin, River Phoenix; geez, the list goes on and on. The fact that MJ died of drugs merely confirmed my dislike for him as the weak-willed person he apparently was. I believe my first reaction was, ‘What an idiot!’ and, ‘Serves him right,’ was my second. I think I thought those mean things because I was MAD at him for being so foolish.

I have to say though, that all my preset negative attitudes began to break down as I watched this documentary. First, the music got to me. I had forgotten how amazing it is, especially the old stuff. For one last time he had intended to perform all his brilliant original hits in this final hurrah 50-event London show, especially songs from “The Big Three,” those being his “Off The Wall”, “Thriller” and “Bad” albums.

From the look of the rehearsals this was going to be an amazing show, because the clips that made it into the movie certainly were. In spite of myself I immediately started singing along to all the songs with my girls. It wasn’t long before they stood up and danced in sheer joy. I’m telling you, it’s that kind of a show. I was pleasantly surprised at how utterly delightful it was to take in. I recommend you go with kids; it will increase the fun of it by at least a factor of four.

Then there was Michael. This is the first time I’ve seen him where he just acted like a regular person for an extended period. There was nothing strange or weird about him. Actually, he struck me as a genuinely nice guy (an extremely talented one!). He was respectful to everyone around him and even in the face of his young co-performers’ continuous adulation he seemed humble and grateful for their appreciation. Occasionally, when the singing and dancing carried him away, these incredibly gifted youngsters in their own right would reverently clap and cheer. He always responds with a heartfelt “God bless you.” If only he could have come across like this throughout those strange times of his, during the decades that he wore the masks and bizarre get ups.

But what really impressed me was his intense professionalism and complete attention to stage detail. There was no aspect of the production that he did not seem to take an interest in, especially if it had to do with the way he wanted HIS music performed. No matter what though, when MJ corrected or explained how it SHOULD be done, he never got cranky or bad tempered; although who knows, maybe they edited that kind of stuff out. Somehow I don’t think so.

I was really curious to watch how he looked as he performed on screen. The rehearsal footage was shot over the month or two leading up to his untimely end. Was there any hint that he was not much longer for this world? To me he definitely looked semi-skeletal, especially in the upper body; aside from that, his legs also appeared to be much more slender than in times past. Ten, fifteen years ago he had willowy yet muscular dancer’s legs, but in the documentary they seemed on the scrawny, almost bony side. It appeared to me that he purposely wore extra loose layers of clothing to try to conceal this gaunter final version of himself.

All of MJ’s live singing comes across in the film as strong and in perfect pitch and key. I suspect that the sound editing folks made sure to make that happen, and if so they did a magnificent job. Like I said, he sounds great, almost studio quality great.

But it was the dancing that I really paid attention to, being a bit of one myself, even if I do say so! He does most of his signature moves in these practice sessions, although not with the old masterful intensity he probably would have had during an actual show. He is most inspired when he performs to Beat It, as well as to Billy Jean. He tried a very short moonwalk and only managed two and half pitiful backward pumps before it seemed as if pain shut down the attempt. I was disappointed, since I excitedly told my girls, “Watch for it! Here comes the moonwalk. I can FEEL it!” If you aren’t watching carefully you won’t even see the attempt. He mostly seems intent on practicing the easier to do sideways moonwalk, which doesn’t have near the impact as his signature move. For me, his failed moonwalk was evidence that his 50 year old body was seriously compromised, and most of us who have reached that mark will say, ‘who can blame him?’ Regardless, his stage presence is overwhelming. The eyes are drawn to the man, whether in full form or not.

And concerning the dancing, the one thing I was antsy about in taking my girls was that he might do all the raunchily revolting crotch grabbing that he was into during that his last big tour in the 90s. I needn’t have worried. Maybe it was the fact that he was a dad himself that broke him of that nasty habit, but there is barely a hint of it in all his routines. The only place it got stark was a short bit where the male dancers mockingly learn how to do it as a group. And yes, they look just as ridiculous as Michael used to. The movie would have been better without it, but there it is.

Anyway, it wasn’t his old dancing injuries that put Michael Jackson into the ground. I’m convinced of that after seeing him do “his thing” in this flick. Overall, for a 50 year old, he seemed fairly fit, if not slightly underfed. However, I’ve been reading that he was having problems sleeping, something I can definitely empathize with. After all, it’s almost 3am as I write this. If I was lying in the bed behind me I’d be staring at the ceiling fan wide awake. As for me, I don’t even worry about it anymore, but in MJ’s case he was desperate for sleep, for any kind of sleep evidently; and when you have the kind of money he had, all he had to do was ask and “sleep” was provided. I’m sure that if one of his doctors said no, then he’d just find another one that would say yes. Thing is I just can’t imagine using a general anesthetic like Propofol to attain sleep. I’ve been put under twice for surgeries and both times I woke up deathly sick. Michael must have been absolutely desperate for unconsciousness if he was willing to put up with those kinds of queasy side effects. Sigh. If only he hadn’t been so rich; maybe he’d still be around.

It’s amazing, for I NEVER would have cared about such a thing if I hadn’t seen this film. Seeing it definitely changed me. At several points I actually felt grief, wiping real tears from my eyes, finally realizing that the man is gone and I deeply felt the utter shame of it. There are times watching him perform that he seems so joyful in being alive and creative—obviously the man did NOT want to die. He was loving life. There was one song that he did about the environment, a song that he wrote, that was particularly poignant, especially hearing him talk about it.

I can honestly say that I enjoyed this movie from beginning to end. I’m glad my girls “forced” me to see it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; liked it until the last spoken line, and then DESPISED it!

I had never heard of this movie until checking out the local Robinson’s online movie list the night before. Of the four films offered today this one looked the most attractive. Michael Douglas, a favorite actor of mine, is in it, so I figured, ‘what the heck, let’s check it out.’

The TV CSI shows have ruined a lot of the latest “whodunit” movies for Hollywood. I say that because the CSI series has raised the bar so high that it’s now difficult for the big screen versions of crime solving fare to measure up to what used to be the inferior little screen form. I must report that this trend continues to hold true in the case of 2009’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

The contemporary adaptation of this film stems from one originally done in 1956, the year before I was born, starring Dana Andrews. I can’t remember having ever seen it so I can’t compare them, but I’m going to bet myself ten bucks that I will like the earlier one more. Why? Read on…

I didn’t used to be such a fuddy-duddy, but I love the old 50s movies for their decency; generally, they lack profanity and do not include nudity and sex. A well done fully clothed clinch or two and some soulful kissing is plenty; I don’t need the distraction of sweaty naked bodies grinding away on a bed, which is what you’ll see too much of in the ’09 film. But that’s just the 52 year old conservative me speaking I guess.

The plot is simple. A young reporter, C.J. Nicholas, from Buffalo New York, now trying to make it big in Shreveport Louisiana, suspects that the district attorney’s perfect streak of 17-in-a-row murder convictions is just too good to be true. The ostensibly corrupt DA, played by a weathered Michael Douglas (how old is this guy now anyway?), is setting his table for a run at the governorship. C.J. sees what everyone else doesn’t, that every guilty sentence has resulted from last minute DNA evidence, while the rest of the evidence is completely circumstantial.

C.J. is a user. First, he manipulates Ella, a doe eyed assistant DA, into falling in love with him so he can make use of her position in the DA’s office. She sees an award on display in his living room for a documentary he had made back in Buffalo about a young black female drug addict living and dying on the winter streets of ice cold Buffalo. She watches a copy of the documentary and is struck deeply by its sad humanity. C.J. has completely reeled her in.

Then, C.J. comes up with an idea to trap the dirty D.A.; he’ll document himself framing himself for murder. Ultimate user C.J. talks his TV cameraman friend, Corey Finley, who also happens to be C.J.’s fellow news worker, into filming every step. The idea is to use that day’s newspaper in each shot to prove that each piece of evidence was acquired days after the murder. I watched this part thinking, ‘Filming all that crap wouldn’t prove he didn’t do it. If that was the case then any criminal could just get rid of the original items and document buying all new similar ones to cover himself, and that just wouldn’t hold up. I’m not getting this at all.’

As part of the plan C.J. gets himself arrested on a bogus DUI, at which point the one likable character in the film, a black detective played by Orlando Jones, ties the circumstantial evidence of C.J.’s unique Italian jogging shoes to the murder of a young black prostitute. C.J. goes to trial for the stabbing death of the girl and his scheme seems to be right on track when, lo and behold, DNA blood evidence is “found” at the last moment in the seams of his jogging pants, the same pants bought by C.J. after the murder was already committed.

But, the evil DA and his equally evil henchman soon figure out what C.J. is up to. They conspire to prevent C.J.’s buddy from delivering the proof of the planted evidence by stealing the video disk copies that he had filmed with C.J. before they can be brought to the courthouse. The henchman chases the panicked cameraman into a horrible collision with a bus and finishes off the unconscious would-be-Pulitzer-award-winner with the flick of a cigarette into the spilt gas of the crash.

Subsequently, C.J. is sentenced to death. Now he’s in big trouble. His self framing job was too perfect, too convincing. With the slick talking DA making light of C.J.’s claims, just as I had foreseen, the jury was not convinced that he had set himself up simply to bring down the well respected DA.

But, the love struck Ella still believes in her man, thinking that anyone who could have made that poignant documentary about the ill-fated young Buffalo prostitute could not possibly be a murderer. She starts to dig into some of her boss’ previous verdicts and finds decisive proof of tampering. Ella has done it, but not without the critical help of Orlando Jones’ character, who saves her life while shooting dead the DA’s murderous henchman. In a dramatic reversal, the Michael Douglas DA character goes to prison while her beloved C.J. is released. All seems well.

I really thought the movie was over at this point, but it wasn’t.

Of course Ella is there with C.J. on his first night home after his release when she makes a cruel discovery while he is sleeping. Looking at the crime photos of the dead Shreveport prostitute in her possession she realizes it’s the same girl in C.J.’s Buffalo documentary. But according to C.J. THAT girl is supposed to have died of an overdose in midwinter Buffalo. Stunned, Ella puts it all together and realizes that C.J. really had murdered the girl all along. By doing so, he had killed two birds with one stone: he’s ended the threat of being discovered for the fraudulent documentary, while becoming famous for exposing a corrupt DA; and he ALMOST got away with it.

It’s actually a pretty good movie all told. Not quite as good as a TV episode of House or a two-hour CSI special, but pretty good nonetheless. But here is what absolutely ruined it for me and thus turned me against recommending this film: at the very end of it, Ella, played by Katie-Holmes-lookalike Amber Tamblyn, has called the cops on her now erstwhile lover C.J., played by Jesse Metcalfe. C.J., with great alarm, demands to know, “Ella what have you done?”

In a calm voice she answers, “It’s done.” She opens the door as a half dozen squad cars pull up in front of the house. Just before leaving she gives C.J. one last disgusted look, and gathering herself, she utters the words that can NEVER be said on ANY of the CSI shows, “F@CK you!”

THAT last line busted the whole movie for me. I HATE that word—hate it, hate it, hate it! I cannot remember once in the whole course of the movie where anyone used that type of mindless profanity, and it IS mindless. Those who use it so often now justify it with, “Well, that’s how we talk now. Get over it.” My answer is, “No. We didn’t used to talk that way. YOU talk that way because it has been accepted by a vulgarized society. It’s a stupid bad habit. It’s crude. It’s ugly. It’s unnecessary. The acceptance of that type of profanity in our everyday language has ruined us, made us less than what we used to be. When I was a kid growing up I NEVER heard it said by other children, or in the movies, or even much by responsible adults. As a personal reaction to it, I try not to put up with it. If I read a blog where everyone feels comfortable using the F word, I stop reading it. If someone posts it on Facebook I click them to “hide.”

I imagine the simpleton filmmakers had a meeting about that last line in their movie. It probably went like this: “Well, the movie is good, but what can we do to make it DIFFERENT from the better TV shows just like it? I KNOW! We can have her say F@ck you. Let’s see ‘em try THAT on network TV!”

I left the theater disgusted and deeply disappointed. Up until that last line I had been thinking, ‘See, they really CAN make a thoughtfully interesting movie without vulgar language…’ Then they threw it all away for that one foul-mouthed final line. Did they think the viewers would jump up and applaud? Well, that’s not likely going to happen since the Ella character never does become all that sympathetic.

It’s ironic; because I was even MORE disgusted as I first took my seat in that Robinson Theater. A filthy mouthed American “urban” gangster rap “song” (if you want to actually call it a song) was playing so loud that even with my earplugs I could still hear the profane lyrics that included a host of disgusting language like, “F@cking Ho, Ni@@er, Sh@t, Mother F@cker, etc.” And in the style of the genre they don’t say these words once, but again and again and again. I kept my temper and my seat until a second song with even fouler words started up even louder, at which point I marched out into the lobby and demanded an end to it. Why can’t they play regular pop tunes or elevator music in the theaters and malls over here? Drives me nuts!

As far as watching this movie in a theater; don’t bother. Wait for it to come out on cable.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Horsemen. HATED it!

I saw Dennis Quaid yesterday in Horsemen. I expected to see at least an adequate movie since he usually picks fairly good ones to be in. Unfortunately, he chose to be in a real dog as far as The Horsemen goes. I like Dennis Quaid, but I didn’t like him in this movie.

Horsemen refers to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a New Testament book by the Apostle John, apparently written after he got old and crazy. Try reading it and see what I mean. Compared to the rest of the New Testament books this last one by John comes across as the nutty ranting of a holy man on acid. Sorry if that’s sacrilege, but I’ve always thought that, ever since I was a little boy Catholic.

Anyway, this movie starts out like a CSI episode, but quickly loses any of that kind of positive momentum. Quaid, playing a cop named Breslin, is called out to a gruesome crime scene in what I believe is midwinter rural Minnesota. He’s supposed to be a crime detective (probably in Minneapolis) with a specialty in forensic odontology; so, that would make kind of make him a crime fighting tooth specialist I guess. Odontology is usually what convicts “biters” by their distinctive bite mark pattern, but there is no biting in this movie, other than a very short reference to a biting rapist by Quaid’s short-tempered boss much later in the movie.

I disliked Quaid’s character almost immediately. Breslin shows up at the icy crime scene and is met by a local county policeman who offers his hand with great deference to the detective. But rather than shake hands Breslin instead sneers with obvious annoyance and impatiently begins to ask questions of the awestruck uniformed cop. At that point I leaned over to Divine and whispered, “What a dick!” I wanted nothing but bad things to happen to him from that point forward. Having experienced that kind of arrogance I hated him and wanted him to fail. If that’s what the director had in mind, mission accomplished.

The reason Breslin was called out was because of the improbable presence of a fancy covered silver serving platter on a table in the middle of small frozen-over creek. Man, it looked cold, brought back bad memories of frigid Michigan winters. Under the platter cover was what used to be a mouthful of adult teeth. These were nauseatingly bloody.

Immediately I thought, ‘Hey wait, why isn’t all the blood congealed and frozen; and why is there so much blood in the first place? There shouldn’t be that much blood on a bunch of pulled teeth no matter how they were extracted, unless they were bludgeoned out of someone’s mouth so that there is still gum and nerve tissue still attached.’

So, right off the bat I began to think that I was now watching a bullshit movie. Turns out it was worse than I thought.

This film isn’t good enough to provide a full description of all the major scenes so I’ll just touch on a couple of the really BS ones that totally caused me to shake my head disapprovingly, something I did a LOT in this movie. Here’s one: Breslin shows up at a real murder scene this time. A woman in a prone position has been hung by her skin from hooks and painfully bled to death. It’s a revolting scene and gratuitously so. I suppose we can thank the CSI shows for that. But the part that caused me to shake my head (yet again) was the appearance of the woman’s three grief stricken “children.” Two of the girls were little Caucasian kids with the third being an Asian “teen.”

Then I got a closer look at the Asian “teenage girl” and realized that she was obviously in her mid to even late 20s. ‘What’s up with that? ‘Divine! Look how old that chick is? They’re trying to make her out to be like a young teenage girl. It’s too obvious she’s not. She’s probably about your age!’ My fiancĂ© just giggled agreeing with me.

The core plotline is that Breslin is struggling to deal with taking care of his two boys after the recent death of his wife. The oldest boy is quietly intelligent and longsuffering, always waiting for his detective father to give him and his little brother as much time and effort as he does to his murder cases. And now, Breslin also has to deal with this really horrible serial killing spree by a group of ritual killers.

There are maybe three plot twists in this flick. I got way ahead of one of the first ones when the oldest boy’s homeroom teacher tells Breslin at a parent-teacher conference that his son does extraordinarily well WHEN he bothers to show up to class. Instantly I thought, ‘Hey, so where is this kid at when he’s NOT in school? Uh oh. He’s the ONE, its Breslin’s own son!’ I told that straight off to Divine and indeed, THAT turned out to be THE major plot twist of the entire film. Buddabing!

The “too old” Asian “girl” turned out to be Breslin’s son’s evil accomplice. She had been molested by her adopted father and she was just getting back at him by killing HIS wife (her supposedly beloved adoptive mother), who, as it turns out, had done nothing wrong and knew nothing at all about the molestation. By the way, the ancient Asian chick was also one of the self-styled four horsemen, with Breslin’s son being the ringleader of the four.

A third horseman had to be sacrificed by the other three, but that part wasn’t given a whole lot of movie time. The fourth horseman was a homosexual high school boy with a real butthead of an older brother who had evidently spent years belittling and demeaning his little brother for his “embarrassing” choice of “lifestyle.” Ugh. This angst-ridden apparently over-sensitive gay young man kills himself in a particularly ghastly fashion in front of his jerk of an older-brother. I blanch thinking about how he did it.

So, by now the writers have apparently established that all three of these “young” people have reason to despise society and to viscerally hate members of their own families to the point that they seek to punish these family members. And THAT is exactly what they do in as sickening a manner as they could possibly come up with.

But, in the movie we learn that these tormented young people are only the tip of this vile ice berg. They (the Asian girl and Breslin’s son) claim that there are in fact thousands of disaffected people in our “f@#ked up society” (as Breslin’s son describes it), spewing out his invective to his now remorseful father at the end of the movie as he takes his own life in that weird hanging-by-fishhooks-and-wires fashion that these sick “horsemen” prefer.

In this role Quaid looks every one of his 55 years plus a few more. I don’t know if they were going for the old and tired look, but they certainly achieved it. He looks as bad as he possibly could. He would only look worse if he had gained weight for the part. He smokes in the movie, so maybe his character doesn’t get fat because of the appetite suppressant effects of the cigarettes. He’s only three years older than me and it got me to thinking.... So much so that when I came home from the movie I looked close in the mirror for the first time in months to see if I was looking “that bad.” Maybe I am? Nawww! No way.

But the real “moral of the story” behind Horsemen is apparently this: Our culture sucks. Our society is filled with people who are homophobic, with lots of really selfish people, with the adulterous and the murderous; and finally, those of us who do not abuse children, disregard them. And so, the moral goes on to warn us: do NOT be surprised then, if young people react against this evil they see all around them and become evil themselves.

What a crock!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Turning OFF the Sound

If you’ve followed my posts going back about a year you’ll know how tortured I’ve been by the various kinds of clamor coming from my multitude of neighbors, and I do have plenty of them. In fact, even with my bad pitching shoulder, I could probably chuck a baseball from the middle of my yard and hit the roof of any of a dozen houses. That is how closely packed the homes are in this part of the subdivision.

Last month marked the beginning of my breaking point when it comes to this never-ending racket. A new neighbor on the other side of the wall from my master bathroom put a caged dog under the eaves of their east side roof. This phobic animal is no more than a dozen feet from where my head hits my pillow. From spying over the wall it appears to be some kind of husky or pug mix. It doesn’t “go off” all the time, maybe a dozen times a day, but that’s plenty.

Folks around here routinely acquire dogs with the sole purpose of raising a ruckus in case anyone approaches. These poor animals then never leave their tiny enclosures for the rest of their miserable lives. Most become neurotic and bark at anything, out of sheer craziness if you ask me. You hear them all the time, these wretched animals barking incessantly for hours on end, probably to simply while away the unending hours of close captivity. It nears the height of animal cruelty, but few people here seem to understand this. ‘The very poor and the plight of animals, eh, so what; we have our own problems, so why worry about some stupid dog?’

The absolute final straw was my “favorite” neighbor, the one that nearly caused me to pull stakes and take off earlier this year when I had the temerity to ask the woman of the house to control her new puppy’s continuous yapping. Three times since then they’ve brought in roosters for a few days at a time, each occasion the piercing sound of the cock’s erratic crowing caused nerve-racking exasperation. Even with two layers of foam over all my windows sandwiched between two panels of plywood, it was not enough. So, enough was enough. I called in Eddy, my fiancĂ©’s brother-in-law, a man who has become my personal builder, for a planning session for one last try at fixing the noise intrusion problem.

I told him I wanted to try four things: first, pack insulation thickly between the ceiling and roof; second, attach shag carpeting over all the walls; three, completely seal all the cracks around the air conditioner; and four, rubber seal all the openings around the doors.

He listened carefully and then countered with: “How about this: We’ll brick up and seal over all four windows of the bedroom and bathroom, and instead of insulating the space between the roof panels and ceiling, we’ll install a second ceiling and insulate the space between the two ceilings.” He agreed that we could easily seal around the aircon and doors, and then, if all that wasn’t sufficient, we could go ahead and put shag carpet on the walls.

“All right! Let’s do it!” I gave him an enthusiastic go ahead. That was last Sunday, a week ago.

Monday was a holiday so they started work on Tuesday morning the second I took off for the office at 0845. After working with my last client at noon, I dallied at the fitness center so as not to get home until well after 4pm. By that time Eddy’s boys had finished cementing in two of the three large windows. Before working with installing cement blocks though they first they had to remove all the glass panels along with the louvers and aluminum framework.

By Wednesday afternoon they had the last of the three windows filled in with cement blocks. When I came home on Thursday half the new ceiling was up and all the finishing cement neatly covered all the blocks where the windows had once been.

Friday was a long day. Eddy and his workers stayed till well after 5pm to finish painting the new ceiling and the walls where the windows used to be.

By yesterday, Saturday, they had the bathroom done as well. The small window in there had also “disappeared,” while the new second ceiling with its own layer of thick insulation was up, with the ceiling and walls given a final whitewashing signaling the completion of the big sound proofing project.

The neighbor’s dog yapped away when I entered my renovated bedroom for the first time after all the new sound resistant features had been added. I closed the door and sat in my easy chair with the TV off. I could still hear the dog, but barely; it sounded miles away.

‘Ahhhh! Success!’ I sighed with great satisfaction. I turned on the aircon and ran a small fan aimed at the open bathroom door where I figured the exhaust fan would help reduce the strong odor of the fresh paint. I notice that the low hum of the aircon along with the small fan completely masks whatever hint of outside sound still manages to infiltrate the room.

To further illustrate the effectiveness of Eddy’s work a storm passed through early in the afternoon today. Normally I cannot hear the TV over the drumming of hard rain on the corrugated metal roof panels overhead, even with the volume full up. But now, with the newly insulated ceiling I could barely hear a faint drumming. I listened to the TV just fine without having to adjust the volume at all.

Most Filipinos cannot understand the consternation I feel every time a dog “goes off” or when one of the neighbors plays karaoke at full volume till way past midnight. I’m not even sure other Americans get as agitated as I do when these horrible sounds invade my space. But for me, it is supreme torture; or I should say, WAS torture, because NOW, all that is behind me.

Last night, my first blessed night under my “new roof,” was one of uninterrupted dreams and tranquilty. In fact, I stayed asleep way later in the morning than I normally do, all because of the wonderful lack of outside sound. The kitchen is just across the breezeway from this room and the usual morning clatter of pots and pans, not to mention the conversation of the girls and the maid as they prepare breakfast was no longer to be heard. In effect, this room is as quiet as the inside of a sealed coffin. Thus, I literally slept like the dead. The hundreds of dollars I paid to achieve it was worth every penny.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pothos, I Hardly Knew You

Last year when I had landscaped the area under my newly built tower and equally towering fruit trees to the point that it was ready for planting, I sent Divine out to do some shopping at the local nurseries. Of the 20 or so types of plants she came back with, four were types of vines. I liked her choices thinking that the different colored runners would look great crawling through the recently placed stones of my rock garden. I was right; among the stones, the natural mix of plants is living art.

It turns out that three of these ivy-like plants that Divine bought are different kinds of Pothos. I’ve seen these viney plants all over the world, used as house and office plants, but never worried about what they are called. I am ashamed to admit it, and me a self-styled lover of all things in nature. Why had I never heard its name before?

Even though I wasn’t familiar with what they are called, it was fairly easy to find and identify it on the net. I typed “tropical houseplants” into the search engine and there it was on the first page of possibles.

‘Ah, Pothos, so that’s what it’s called!’

What a strange name; it definitely doesn’t roll naturally off the tongue, at least not off mine. I keep tending to call it Porthos; which would be pretty cool, naming a plant after one of The Three Musketeers. I guess I could break it down into Pot-hos, which said out loud phonetically sounds like the plural of a trampy pot. Weird how my mind works.

I planted all the vines Divine brought home in the shadiest part of the new garden, figuring they wouldn’t do well in direct sunlight. I’m sure the fact that they don’t prefer full sun is why you see these plants all over the world in every mall you’ve ever visited and on display in so many doctors’ offices.

The vines flourished in their new home among the shady rocks beneath my thickly leafed mango trees. In no time my many Pothos plants began to sprawl out of the confines of the small rock garden. One particular vine pushed its way beneath the bench against the wall upon which the bench rested, although I didn’t really pay much attention to the wayward tendril until it popped up above the bench back. It was neat how its roots attached to the painted concrete blocks and then, as the Pothos pressed ever upwards, its roots continued to attach themselves tightly to the decorative painted bamboo above the blocks.

The roots don’t seem to care what it is they find themselves up against. As the vine sprouts outward into the world, the brown worm-like roots attach themselves to whatever it is they happen to touch up on, and so tightly that it seems as if they have glued themselves onto that host surface. Once Pothos has tacked itself to something it ain’t coming off; it actually seems to become chemically part of the surface to which it is attached.

I can’t believe I’m devoting an entire post to this plant, but the more I watch it in my garden the more fascinating I find it to be. It’s next amazing feature after its efficient roots are its prolific leaves. They aren’t all that amazing as they grow in a potted plot in your grandma’s living room, but the leaves of the Pothos plants become truly extraordinary once it begins to grow upwards on a tree or up a wall, for once the plant starts to climb, each successive leaf grows larger than the one beneath it.

The Pothos growing up the wall behind the garden bench is now about 8 feet up, and incredibly, its top leaves are almost a foot wide. When I first noticed the size of the uppermost leaves on that plant I thought I was witnessing some kind of natural miracle. I had never seen any similar plant with such elephantine leaves. Why were they doing that? I had to find out why they were growing so large and how much larger could they possibly get? And so, I looked up this otherwise ordinary plant on the internet to learn that it is called Pothos and to find out its secrets.

Researching the plant I was amazed to learn that in the tropics it can grow upwards into trees to the height of 65 feet. Even more amazing is that the leaves on a mature climbing Pothos can actually grow three feet across! None of that would have seemed even remotely possible until I had the opportunity to see my own Pothos plants now in action. None have climbed that high nor have any of the leaves reached those yard wide proportions, but at least now I know of their exciting potential.

I also have several Pothos plants growing outside in hanging planters and their vines seem quite content to grow downwards with some vines as long as 20 feet so far. The interesting thing is that none of these potted Pothos vines seem to have the least inclination to grow upwards when they come in contact with a wall. It seems that only those plants that grow rooted in the ground will send their vines upwards into trees and up walls. I really do not understand why this would be. Nature can be so quirky at times, but those miraculous eccentricities are much of the attraction for me.

Another curiosity is that the Pothos leaves stay small and ordinary as the plant travels outward along the ground. It’s only after it grows upwards that its roots begin to activate by attaching themselves deeply into the vertical surface, growing deeply and quite snuggly into that material. The same is true of the leaves; it is not until the vines begin grow upward attaching to some kind of surface, that its leaves become robust and start to reach their full potential in size and thickness. To compare, I have another different type of tree climbing vine that sends out super long reddish tendril like roots all the way down to the ground; unlike the Pothos vines though its leaves do not increase in size as they grow upwards into the tree.

I’ve already trained several Pothos plants to start growing up the massive trunk of my outdoor mango tree using u shaped staple nails to hold them in place on the tree to get them started on their journey upward. So far they are doing wonderfully and seem to love their new home growing up the side of the tree.

Seeing how beautiful those tree growing Pothos have become, Divine and I were inspired to transplant a half dozen Pothos “babies” to the base of our “indoor” mango tree by using the end cutting technique. It’s been about a month so far and the six little vines are just now beginning to send out their first new leaves. I can’t wait to see if they will thrive as well as their outdoor tree climbing counterparts.

As far as I’m concerned, Pothos has become my new favorite plant. Pothos is king.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fixing Healthcare, Just Like Fixing Airplanes?

With all the talk lately of American healthcare troubles it got me thinking on the subject of problem solving. That IS the goal I think; but it seems that very few if any of the myriad techniques available are being applied, other than the amateurish principle of “trial and error,” which may well be the worst method there is. I’ve heard people in the administration actually say things like, “The problem is SO catastrophic that we NEED to do something, ANYTHING; we can always “tweak” it as we go later.”

Similarly, back in “the stupid old days,” the US military routinely used the “field and forget” method to employ new weapons systems,” a fiasco of a way of doing things that usually ended up as “field and fix.” The annals of our military history abound with horror stories of hastily-employed weapons; the extent of their failings discovered at the worst possible time, that is, “when the weapon met the war.”

The “fog of war” is murky enough without making it worse with untested equipment, yet until relatively recently we routinely did this foolishness. Usually it happened because of politics (sound familiar?), or where some high placed officials thought THEY knew better than the REAL experts, the experts of course being the enlisted folks and officers who have to actually use the stuff.

During my time “in” I was around quite a bit of problem solving, which started with my time as a technician and technical supervisor. But all that turned out to be preparation for what I got into during the last half of my career, when I graduated from repairing individual planes to resolving issues involving entire fleets of aircraft. If I’m completely honest though, rarely was I the actual “solver,” but always I was certainly part of “the problem solving process,” a process that invariably involved input from a team of “solvers.”

I got onto the whole “big picture” problem solving ride by accident. It started as I entered into the last 13 years of service, the half way point of my time in the military. From there my career path meandered to the extraordinary, at least compared to a lot of other airmen’s careers.

My job path took off on this “merry tangent” in 1989 when I left the position of shift leader for a new job in the Quality Assurance Office after being recruited into it by the master sergeant I eventually replaced. (I caught his attention one morning as he observed the no-nonsense way I handled my troops during the weekly “FOD walk”). During my next 6 years in the Quality Office I also took on the ancillary responsibility of overseeing a contract field team of around 25 or so civilian technicians whose job it was to strip out most of the original 30-year-old electronics in our vaunted C-130 “Hercules” cargo plane, and installing modern systems in their place.

What I found the most interesting about that 6 year QA gig was constantly running into new problems, some big, some small. There were about 80 airplanes on our flightline (including the Air Guard’s)—a lot of C-130s. With so many “birds” it took several years to modify all of them; so for quite some time we had a mix of newly modified aircraft, along with “birds” still creaking along with 30 and 40 year old technology.

As lead base for C-130s, often times we were first to get the newest systems, on a trial basis so to speak. In effect, we were the guinea pigs for the rest of the fleet; as such, I was confronted with glitches and gremlins almost on a daily basis. My job was to research these malfunctions, in the short term find out the “whys,” and finally, to come up with answers and even resolutions.

It was during this time of continuous problem solving that I began to simultaneously submit my “fixes” by way of the Air Force Suggestion Program, as well as to the primary approving agency being the Air Logistics Center at Warner Robins AFB in Georgia.

I remember the first time I had a suggestion approved just a few months before I joined the QA team. It was to modify an incorrect troubleshooting tree for engine oil pressure transmitters. It wasn’t all that complicated, but months later, seeing the pages amended in the technical orders to reflect MY changes was quite heady. In a small way I had affected the entire fleet of several hundred C130s. I felt pretty good about that, and about the little award check I got out of it as well.

The stars lined up perfectly when I joined the QA shop and found myself responsible for the proper installation of a host of new aircraft electronic systems. As part of these responsibilities I worked with the Lockheed “mod team” to write the installation workbook requiring that I saw and or touched every new wire bundle, screw and rivet that went into the plane. As part of that workbook I made it mandatory that I personally sign off the okay to reinstall every panel to make sure there was no debris left behind it before they were allowed to button it back up. There was a good chance that I would be the last person to inspect those areas for years to come; and believe me, I felt the pressure of knowing that. When it comes to aircraft work there is no such thing as being too critical; it either meets spec or it doesn’t. My very last signature was the one I made on the acceptance sheet which brought each airplane out of depot status back into operation with the Air Force.

Earlier I spoke of how the military has made a science of properly fielding new weapons systems (in fact, the army has a university devoted to perfecting and teaching acquisition at Ft Lee, VA); BUT, when installing so many new systems onto a 30 year old platform like our C-130s were, while still keeping much of the deteriorating original wiring and archaic electrical power, in the aftermath of that we were bound to have to do some major “tweaking.”

Indeed, MY CFT guys put a LOT of new gear into those old planes: Let’s see, one of the most complicated installations was a brand-new redundant Self-Contained Nav System that also provided attitude information to the flight directors; the team also put in a host of flat panel and digital instruments to replace the old spinning dial analog indicators, a new autopilot, GCAS (ground collision avoidance), a partial upgrade to aircraft power, a much improved radar altimeter and Doppler radar, as well as several new radios and associated antennas and secure voice kits. Toward the end of my tenure we also started to put in GPS, TCAS (aircraft collision avoidance) and electronic countermeasures to include the chaff and flare dispensers. After almost 15 years since my involvement I’ve forgotten some of the systems MY team installed, but per aircraft all that work took hundreds of man-hours, thousands of feet of wire, countless hundreds of wire pins and terminals, and scores of connectors; and it all had to be done perfectly and on schedule, aircraft after aircraft. All those long overdue upgrades were bound to lead to a host of problems, and boy, did it ever!

From 90 to 91 I took a short break from “my path” by going to war; during the two years it took those 7 months to pass I became a regular maintainer again. After the war I returned to Little Rock to find shocking changes in my absence; the Air Force had gone through a major organizational and philosophical shakeup—maintenance had become completely decentralized; there was no longer a single colonel in charge of maintaining all 64 aircraft. Overnight each of the four squadron commander’s took over complete responsibility for their own birds’ upkeep.

Not only that, but a new concept called TQM, or Total Quality Management (a term now long out of vogue), had become the latest management fad. Under it, all of us once scary QA boogiemen lost our scariness and instead we became nerdy “quality facilitators.” Lucky for us though, our Logistics Group commander was shrewd enough not to dismantle us the way other C-130 bases had done immediately to their QA shops once the reign of TQM had begun. The fact that our QA pretty much remained intact paid off big as far as I’m concerned.

I must admit though that I wasn’t sorry to see the days of inspection quotas ended; I never liked doing all those tedious exams anyway. Instead of inspecting individuals’ work (making them extremely nervous!) and checking out test equipment, we began concentrating on “process improvement.” And ho hum, I guess we did some of that, but what really excited me was getting all that new electronics correctly installed, and just as important, finding and fixing all the associated glitches and bugs.

And HERE is why our commanders were so brilliant in keeping us QA boys around—we became the corporate knowledge bank, the go-to-guys for oddball problems, and the overseers of high interest taskings from the command.

There is a very scary truism about airplanes: You don’t know what’s screwed up if you don’t know what’s screwed up. This strange axiom became obvious when our wing became the only one still conducting so-called acceptance inspections of those C-130s returning from the depot facility at Ogden, Utah. We had just way too many airplanes to let our contract field team do all the modifications, so Ogden and Warner Robins did them as well. The problem is that the colonel in charge at Ogden became upset with us because we were the only ones complaining about their work. I would go out to an airplane just arrived from Utah and fill page after page of squawks on a legal pad, and many of them were grounding write ups (I once found over 100 writeups). The Ogden colonel was so irked at us that he paid for me and my right hand man, a brilliant avionics troop by the name of Shawn Dougherty, to come to his facility so he could show US how wonderful HIS installers were. As it turned out, we were not the least bit impressed and in fact showed them the many errors of their ways. At first their resentment was disconcerting, but eventually I think we won them over with our earnestness.

The point is that WE KNEW what to look for because we were were intimately familiar with every disturbed and new wire bundle and connector, so we immediately recognized the improprieties, but we were the only inspectors left at the wing level who continued to do these post-depot inspections. A chilling thought—what about the OTHER aircraft never looked at with the same knowledgeable eyes? As far as all the other users the installation was A-okay. The only actual acceptance inspection done at the depot was done by an aircrew that had no clue about what was physically done to the aircraft and whose only worry was to accomplish the checkflight. As far as they were concerned, if the systems worked on that flight, then it was good to go. In other words, “Ignorance is NOT bliss.” …shudder…

And NOW, to finish up this LONG post—my counterpart, Shawn Dougherty, and I, began to LOOK for problems or just ways to make maintenance actions less cumbersome and more efficient. Here’s what we learned: if you stay your ass in the office, you will NEVER learn a thing. You GOT to find out what you DON’T know. A common fault of problem solvers is that they THINK they KNOW; they DON’T. Following that premise we made our rounds to the flightline, to the squadrons, to the shops, to the contractors, all with the goal of talking to “the experts.”

Hardly a day went by where some sergeant or senior airman didn’t come up to me to complain about some new glitch or malfunction. It got to the point that troops seeing me drive by would jog over and flag me down, something they NEVER used to do when I wore my white boogieman QA hat. They loved that I always had a sympathetic ear and asked lots of questions. Complaints, moans, and groans—I LOVED it. If they had a problem I WANTED to hear about it. Their squawks became my bread and butter.

To finish blowing my own horn, we began to establish a reputation, especially once all the approved suggestion awards began to roll in along with the award checks. Every month during commander’s call Shawn and I would receive not one or two checks, but usually 5 or 6. This went on month after month, for almost three years; and once the word got out that WE were the people to see to get things fixed, even more folks approached us with their tales of woe. I’m pretty sure our success inspired others to do the same thing. I loved it, being able to make a difference.

As I said, seldom if ever was I the one that came up with the fixes. Most of those ideas came from the same folks who came forward with the problems in the first place. Ask someone for a problem and chances are they can also tell you how to solve it.

But my REAL secret weapon in tackling especially big problems was my contract field team. Those fellows were incredibly brilliant at finding the best solutions. Most were retired military with decades of experience working on aircraft long before they started modifying planes as civilians. Whenever I approached them with a problem, I’d make my pitch, usually at the break table, and then I’d leave them to mull it over. Without exception, within a few days they’d have a workable solution, usually complete with diagrams and written procedures. They always told me that they wanted nothing in return since by contract everything they came up with officially belonged to Lockheed. It was a joke to them; they said they’d rather I have credit than Lockheed. Absolutely remarkable men!

In 1992 or 93 the base commander even chose me to be his Suggestor of the Year, or at least some one in the suggestion office did, not that I was even aware that such an award existed. It was nice but it could easily have gone to Shawn, since we collaborated on most of our projects. I always say that THE best idea I ever had was hiring him to work with me in QA.

I learned during those exciting times that my strong suit was seeing the brilliance in others and tapping into that brilliance as a primary resource; and I found that the best answers invariably come from the same folks who come forward with the problems in the first place. If the solution is the drink then I was the humble vessel. I did my job best by completely defining the problems and their scope, usually after that, what had to be done became obvious. I’m sure the answers to our healthcare dilemma can be found in exactly the same way; and not by a bunch of self-serving politicians and lobbyists who THINK they know the answers; THEY don’t.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughts on ObamaCare

News coverage of Obama’s healthcare bill has eclipsed all other news for much of the summer and it looks like this same controversial topic will stay on the front burner well into autumn. Personally, when it comes to health insurance, I’m covered by three separate government health care systems—TriCare, Medicare, and the VA. Asking myself if any of this stuff concerns me, of course the answer is YES, it does. Reading the news and researching the bill, I feel extremely apprehensive.

Its complicated nature is one thing that bothers me—it’s a hulking Frankenstein monster cobbled together by disparate authors each with their own special interests. And no one really knows anything about how it will specifically work to accomplish the objective, which supposedly is affordable healthcare for virtually everyone. I ask rhetorically, does this mean if you’re broke or indigent that you will still have access to by-pass surgery, ultrasounds, MRI’s, CAT scans, chemotherapy, x-rays, or whatever your medical needs might be? If so, then in a nutshell, the way it works is we spend lots of money—billions upon trillions in fact.

Based on what he’s said in his recent promotional speeches to push this legislation, or I should say, on what he didn’t or couldn’t say (long on promises, short on details), Obama himself doesn’t understand much of the inner workings of “his” own bill; and who can blame him? Have you tried to read it? Here’s a link to the contents of HR 3200 by subtitle and section. Scroll through it and see what I mean. Basically, he tells us not to worry, don’t be scared—TRUST him. (I’m supposed to trust someone with a background devoid of any real executive experience in any field other than “community organizing?”) I’m still baffled whenever he says it will cost MORE not to implement this bill. . . .Huh?

Here’s what I think—in our current economic state we cannot afford to pay for everyone’s medical care. Maybe it was possible decades ago, when medical care was bare bones, but now? No way. Back then, all the procedures and treatments, plus the equipment it takes to accomplish them, all things taken for granted today, had not yet been developed or invented. And pharmaceuticals?—antibiotics were just coming into development 70 years ago for one example, and compared to today there were few effective remedies of any kind. People either recovered (mostly on their own) or they died; and often a lot of suffering was involved before they died just the same. Seventy years ago the government was not involved in any of that.

So here’s the thing, if we ARE going to do this, if we really plan to provide all the latest medical care to everyone, no matter how much they do or don’t pay in, then we all have to accept the fact that we must sacrifice other things on a national scale, things like our high-priced military capabilities, educational programs, foreign aid, highway and bridge building and repair, space exploration, you name it, we have to let much of that and plenty of other stuff go; AND it’s a given that our taxes WILL necessarily go UP.
Look at overtaxed Europe for instance; they HAVE socialized medicine and due to the costs of funding it they mostly rely on us to defend them, the same as much of the free world does. If we do this then, our allies should start deciding what to do if Russia, China or Iran starts flexing imperialistic, and how to do it without us.

On that note, let’s talk cost on a human level. My dad had a kidney transplant that gave him about 15 years more of life. The costs of doing the actual procedure was probably on the order of hundreds of thousands, and the continuing costs of maintenance meds, plus the expense of paying for recovery from complications over the next decade and a half was probably even more. Who paid for it? Well, you did if you bought certain American autos. His GM health insurance paid for most of it initially, so GM recovered it by rolling it into the price of their cars. (None of that was a problem as long as General Motors was hugely profitable). I assume the rest of the costs were rolled into TriCare and Medicare, so again, we all paid; no argument from most, since we might need some of that action someday, right?

Next, the marvels of “the miracle” of modern medicine—both my grandfathers died of heart failure; after their attacks the treatment they got back in the 60s and early 70s was bed rest—that was about it. Can’t get much more inexpensive than that; but, you get what you pay for, because they both died! It’s a good bet that they would not have died from those same heart attacks today. Now, there are drugs that bring heart attack victims back from the brink, not to mention angioplasty, stints and by-passes—all miraculous, and all expensive.

All the new treatments are great, they extend life like no one ever thought possible during my grandfathers’ times; but let’s face it, the costs are enormous. To highlight on a personal (non-American) level, my Filipino buddy died three nights ago from a longstanding heart condition. His cardiologist told him months ago that angioplasty would easily give him another couple years or more of life. Yet, he didn’t have the procedure because he didn’t have the money and couldn’t get it, not even from his 6 kids in the States. The cost of angioplasty here is 700,000 Pesos or about $14,500 (cheap by American standards). Yet, his six successful children, all Americans, refused to chip in the measly $2430 each to save their dad. In effect, they exercised their own familial version of rationed health care, something we will certainly see under the ObamaCare system if it passes. I’m sure my buddy’s kids reasoned that their dad is old and weak—how much longer can he last? Am I judging them? Well, yes, I am; but similar decisions will surely be made by the new healthocrats waiting to happen with this bill!

(On the subject of rationing, most of us low rent “bottom feeders” simply accept it. Insurance companies, the VA, even TriCare, they all govern who gets what procedures, tests and treatments and when, based on factors such as age, cost, and likelihood of effectiveness—that IS rationing. Of course, they HAVE to; there is only so much money to go around. And if Medicare doesn’t do it now, I have to wonder why they aren’t. Perhaps I’m hardened to it from my own experiences, but there’s just no way that everyone gets treatment, regardless of circumstance. ONLY the very rich get ALL the treatment they desire—nothing will EVER change that, not even ObamaCare. Brad Pitt supports ObamaCare without question, but when he gets to be 75 do you think he’s going to subject himself to the decisions of some healthocrat? Hell no, he’s going to go someplace else in the world and simply pay for whatever he wants, and more power to him!)

Now bear with me while I continue to talk this out, because I’m trying to understand a few things—first, explain what it is about healthcare that suddenly turned it into a human right? There is nothing about healthcare in the Constitution. All it says is that we have a right to the pursuit of happiness (and life and liberty) by guaranteeing our freedoms under the Bill of Rights to keep us free of government tyranny.

So, obviously, Obama’s crew and many of his big city constituents believe that modern medical care should be a basic human right, and, that as a nation we must all bear the costs for those that cannot afford it. Do I have that right? Okay, so let’s say they pass the bill and universal care becomes the new American human right. Well, as I just pointed out above, the miracle of modern medicine costs money and lots of it. Then again, so do a lot of things, like houses and cars. Shouldn’t those things also be added to the list of human rights? And why stop there? Shouldn’t we all be able to travel by commercial jet, just like the richest of us are able to whenever THEY want?

Isn’t that what much of this is about—envy? That if some of us are rich enough to have access to certain things, shouldn’t everyone have access to those things too? Well hell, carrying it out a little further, why should ONLY Americans have access to medical care, or homes, or cars, or food, or champagne, or to whatever? Why not provide all things to all people everywhere on the planet?

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Well, it is ridiculous, because if we go down this socialistic path, we will end up the way the Cubans are today, the way the Soviets were 30 years ago. The Soviet system disappeared because of its socialist failings, and Cuba is a joke with a half-assed public medical system, despite what propagandist Michael Moore claims.

I’m wondering; considering the expense of contemporary medical care, shouldn’t we be willing to work hard INDIVIDUALLY to pay for the best health insurance we can get? Most of us don’t give it a second thought that homes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (or millions) that new cars cost tens of thousands; so why get so angry when a steep bill comes in for chemotherapy or to have a fractured leg properly set? Healing a broken body can be way more complicated than building a car. Like it or not, hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical companies, the entire medical industry, does not exist for free. If Obama forces them to operate under cost, that industry WILL start to go away. At that point we WILL have de facto rationed care exactly like the Canadians and Europeans.

(Then again, I HAVE seen what I consider gouging by hospitals. When she was pregnant with our first daughter I took my wife to an emergency room in New Jersey for stomach pain. Mostly she sat alone in an examining room before a doctor finally came in and checked her out for all of 5 minutes. Then a nurse came in and gave her a shot of Demerol and left. We sat in the room for another hour by ourselves with the nurse checking on her once more before we left. The charge for all that to TriCare was $850! I think TriCare paid them $200. Another time I took my son to Children’s Hospital in Little Rock after he had been diagnosed with the onset of diabetes. They did a wonderful job with him but their charges were definitely a gouge. $10 for an aspirin and $80 for physical therapy!? The so-called physical therapy consisted of one session of taking him down to the gym, handing him a basketball and letting him dribble and shoot unsupervised for a half-hour! That kind of BS overcharging makes you wonder doesn’t it? No wonder insurance companies don’t trust hospital billing!)

And then there are the folks who choose NOT to invest in the possibility that they will need a doctor to fix them up some day, so instead, they spend their money on other things. So be it. It’s a free country, or it is for now anyway, because ObamaCare is going to force everyone to pay premiums, whether they want to or not. And you know what, maybe as part of a REAL healthcare fix everyone SHOULD pay; especially if deadbeats have decided that they will get their future healthcare for free (at our expense) at emergency rooms or from Medicaid, etc. People like that are irresponsible, but currently THAT is their choice; if they opt out of paying insurance, when they get sick or hurt, hey, it’s on THEM! I say no more freebies at emergency rooms or any “public care” for anyone.

Ultimately, THAT is the real thing going on here then—that THESE people in THIS government are convinced that THEY know what’s best. This far left group that we inexplicably voted into power last November wants nothing less than for government to control EVERYTHING. This is about THEIR power; it’s about THEM reforming America into a new Europe. No thanks. My people escaped all that European bunk centuries ago—I do not want to be a European.

Healthcare problems we can fix with far less intrusive measures than what I see in that beast of a bill. I just hope that whatever bill Obama, Pelosi and Reid force down our throats, that is, IF they do, that its provisions are not so profoundly implemented that a future "more responsible" congress is not able to draw it back and eradicate it.