Saturday, January 31, 2009

An Army family's service

My daughter recently posted on her family blog what its like to say goodbye "again" to their army trooper husband and daddy. He was able to come home for a couple weeks for the birth of their newest son, Lance, but now its time to return to his station in Iraq.

I can remember experiencing some pretty deep "goodbye feelings" as a military kid, and later on as a military member myself, and they all came rushing back while reading my girl's description of my grandson's reaction to watching his daddy have to fly away once again. It's heart rending. Damien really loves his daddy.

Barry is a Blackhawk pilot in Iraq on the good side of his current tour over there. He will be stationed stateside upon his return in five months, but probably has another tour to Afghanistan coming up after a year at home. Unfortunately, that year is going to fly by. I worry about him constantly. Every time I see a report about a helo incident I hold my breath.

You want to meet some "tough" stout hearted folk, go to an army base during this time of war and talk to the average trooper and their family members. Their attitudes are amazing. I assure you, some of our best people choose to serve; if you doubt that, go talk to people like Barry and his wife, my daughter, Marie. Oh, and Marie already did a tour of enlistment in the army, so she's a veteran too.

Can you tell I'm proud of them?

Mactan Guitar Factory, Allegre's

It was raining steadily by the time we left The Magellan LapuLapu Monument. Pete and I are sticklers when it comes to time and within a split second of each other we both came up with the fact that we had just over an hour left on the three hours on our taxi. I had remembered going to see a guitar factory during my last trip to Mactan back in 1985 and mentioned to our little group that it might be nice to check one out before heading back to the hotel. No one objected, so off we went.

The driver took us to a place called Allegre’s Guitar. It was nothing like the crude dusty so-called factory I remembered seeing before. That one had been nothing but a barn-like wooden building with a tin roof. Inside, about a dozen men squatted on the floor in a huge pile of saw dust and wood chips. It must have taken them weeks to build up so much. It was messy, but it was impressive to see.

By comparison to that place from long ago, Allegre’s is nothing if not professional. There is nice place to park on the outside of the factory wall and a greeter meets and escorts guests into the factory. A lot of work and thought has gone into the displays.

I’ve included a few shots in this post from my flickr site of our tour of Allegre’s; from them you get a good idea of what they attempt to accomplish with their museum-like exhibits. All the different components are shown before they go into final assembly. If you are a carpenter or woodworker of any kind, such as a furniture maker, you will probably take a lot of interest in all the different types of wood they have. They have everything from oak and maple from Canada to various tropical hardwoods from right here in the Philippines.

Just as I had seen 24 years ago at that less sophisticated factory, Allegre’s also puts their woodcarvers, assemblers and painters on display as they demonstrate their craft. Also, just as I recall from that earlier trip, hardly any sound is heard other than the quiet rasp of file or chisel on wood, or the almost silent shushing of sandpaper. I didn’t see a single power tool of any kind, not a jigsaw or drill press one, thus the peaceful silence, not something you’d normally expect from a factory. I doubt that they could get any more low tech, but I think that’s actually pretty cool.

The one thing that Allegre’s has that I don’t remember from my earlier visit is a glitzy show room. And the neat thing about the show room aside from all the very beautiful guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, and other stringed instruments on display are the fellows that show them off and skillfully play them for you. We spent more time looking at these exquisite instruments and listening to the showmen play them one after another than we did in the actual factory.

Watching them play so effortlessly turns out to be a very effective sales ploy. I don’t play anything, but while watching our guide, and now salesman, play a ukulele as if it was almost playing itself I developed a hankering to have one. I was surprised at the rich sound he made come from it, not all plunky like I thought.

Intently, I watched him play one made from a richly dark mahogany. Amazed I asked, “All that great sound from a ukulele; I can’t believe it. How much would something like that cost?”

Without stopping his graceful strumming of a Filipino folk song used to dance the tinikling, a traditional Filipino dance, he answered, “Only 10,000 pesos, and that includes a really nice carrying case.”

“Oh man! I don’t have that kind of cash on me. If you took credit cards I’d probably have to get one though.”

“Oh, we take credit cards; no problem!”

Divine laughed, “Ha! He got you! Now you gonna buy one?”

I grinned, “Well, I guess I have no choice now, do I?” And buy one I did. It’s a beauty!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Far be it from me to expect perfection, still...

And speaking of hyper-critical, let’s talk about the hotel we stayed in on Mactan, a pretty nice place called The Crown Regency; well, it was mostly nice.

First, some good things: The suites are spacious; they include two bedrooms, one with its own full bath; a full kitchen (not a kitchenette) with all the basic appliances that you’d expect; a good-sized living room/dining room; another separate full-sized full bathroom; and finally, a total of three verandas—all for 6000 pesos a night, or just over $125.

And here are some more good things: A beautiful big ol’ well-maintained pool (with nice landscaping), free internet access in all bedrooms, a fairly well-equipped fitness room free for guests, and on the roof (I think about the 10th or 11th floor) a fancy-schmancy spa with “reasonable” prices (reasonable being relative). Oh, and let’s not forget that breakfast is gratis as well, with eggs made to order by a pretty good chef staff.

The price per day isn’t too bad I suppose, if you consider what you get. Still…

You’d think that the person in charge of putting someone in charge of selecting the furniture for a hotel that might rate a star or two would put more thought into it, because I spent much of my time in the room scratching my head and chuckling at the obvious deficiencies (chuckling, because if you didn't laugh, you'd scream).

For instance, I’m a TV hound—the first thing I do is look for the remote upon entering any hotel room. Check out the picture of the TV cabinet in the living room. This idiotic cabinet has two doors that do not fold all the way back. Therefore, the only way to see what’s on is to sit directly in front of it. I’m sorry, but that’s just plain moronic. It’s like watching TV down a tunnel. I never once spent time in that room, seeing that silly TV with its wooden blinders overloaded my BS detector; it was more than I could bare.

Then there are the beds! They look great made up and all, regal even, but they are WAY too tall, unless you happen to be over the height of 6 feet. Well, my girl and I are veritable midgets, so we just about had to take a running leap to get up and into the darn thing. Then, to make matters worse, the springs are extra firm, so that they put a crown on the bed. In other words, you are way up off the floor as it is, and now you feel like you are going to spill out over the side. It’s like sleeping downhill on the edge of a cliff. You get too close to the edge and it’s a long way down. I’m telling you, I developed a phobia from it.

Now, as I said, the beds are tall, so naturally you’d suppose that they’d buy nightstands that are equally tall, right? Wrong! Sitting up in bed watching my beloved TV with a coke in hand, I had to lean way over and down to put my drink on the stand. Of course, if I strayed too close to the edge, off I’d fall.

On that note, both the nightstands and dressers had the same ridiculous design on their table tops. I’ve never seen anything like it—they were beveled right along their edges. Because of these dopey slanted edges, more than an inch wide, if I didn’t pay attention and put something on them too close to the slant, off it would slide. I dropped cans of coke onto the floor and other assorted objects, such as coins, my cell, my sunglasses, you name it. Just to make sure, I pushed everything to the center of all the table tops. It drove me nuts. The fact that the nightstands are also like this made them even more difficult to use while sitting in bed since they were so far down from the lofty top of the bed. Getting the point?

In choosing between rooms I noticed that the bedroom with the private bath was set up all wrong in relation to the TV. (Heaven forbid!)The bed was sideways to the TV. What? So only one person is supposed to watch TV from the double bed at a time? No way. I’d rather have the other bedroom, without the bath, but with the TV where it should be, right in front of the bed; thank you very much.

The lack of ergonomics theme continued down in the hotel restaurant dining room. Aside from the ever-present flies, I realized the problem when I first sat on one of the over padded bench seats and my chin barely reached 6 inches above the table top. Jokingly, I asked the waiter for a booster chair, but he didn’t get the joke.

As far as the flies, the dining room is about as far away from the entrance as it can get, so where are all the flies coming from? I used one hand to wave them off while eating with the other; and that’s something you get used to over here, but it shouldn’t happen in a nice hotel restaurant, should it?

I can tell you this: The windows and sliding veranda doors of the suite bedrooms are definitely NOT sound-proofed. We were on the fourth floor over-looking the main boulevard and MAN it was noisy. Some really big trucks continuously rumbled past, and since horn-honking in the Philippines is part of driving here, there was lots of that as well—every bit of that persistent sound seemed to be taking place right outside the thin panes of glass. My veranda door wouldn’t latch properly, so that it was always about 1/8th inch cracked open, which reduced its sound muffling abilities to next to nothing. Bottom line: if you stay at The Crown Regency, ask for a room facing away from the front of the building.

I put this panarama together using multiple shots from my bedroom veranda. In making the horizon level notice that the busy and noisy street below, which is straight as an arrow, became boomarang shaped when I layered the pictures together into one (Click on the pic for a full-sized flickr view of the panarama).

Ever see elevators with hair-trigger doors? Well, they got ‘em at The Mactan Crown R. There is almost no pause after they open. Slam! There they go, and up or down the elevator swoops. I developed a complex to the effect that whenever the doors opened I’d hastily reach in and hold the middle slats to keep them from slamming shut. And don’t try to be nice and step back to wait for it to empty of riders before getting close. I did this once and wasn’t able to get a hand against the door in time—SLAM! Swoop—I missed my chance to get in.

So would I stay there again? Yeah, probably; sometimes it doesn’t pay to expect perfection. Just the same, if the owner and managers happen read this, why not take some of these observations under advisement?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Magellan Beach, ...I Mean, LapuLapu Beach.

A week ago today (Sunday) we returned from an outreach to Cebu. Our entire office (the three of us) went to offer our services and advice with veteran’s affairs to the local veteran and dependent population under the auspices of our qualifications and experience as volunteers in a local VSO (veterans service organization). While there, we took the opportunity to check out a few of the sites in Cebu City and on Mactan Island.

One of the first things I noticed was all the little white sedan taxis. They are everywhere. I loved two things about these ubiquitous little “go vehicles:” the cost to get anywhere in them is cheap, and their drivers don’t seem intent on ripping you off. Even when we made a deal off the meter to have one stay with us for three or so hours at a whack, the most we had to pay for such a thing was between 15 and 20 dollars; and, being from Angeles City, (a place where taxis are pretty much only available within the confines of The Clark Economic Zone) I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s actually cheaper to get somewhere in the Cebu City area by a clean air-conditioned Cebu taxi using the meter than it is to get virtually anywhere here within “The City of Angels” in an uncomfortab
ly cramped trike.

About the only downside to the Cebu taxis is also the thing kind of interesting about them. Most of them have been modified with an LPG package to run on that much cheaper kind of fuel. So, if you need to put luggage in the trunk you just might be out of luck. We didn’t discover this until the morning we needed to get to the consulate only to learn that our taxi’s trunk space was mostly filled with an LPG tank. Not wanting to wait around until a regular gas taxi happened by, my counterpart opted to hold a heavy boxed printer on his lap for the half hour it took to get there. We should have just taken two taxis, but he didn’t realize how painful that box was going to become sitting across his knees by the time we got there. Shame on me, I remember thinking, ‘Well, better him than me!’ The poor guy; good thing he’s made of sterner stuff than I am these days.

It’s been since 1985 since I’ve been to Cebu. During my short return visit there last week, I wanted to see the four things of interest that have stuck in my mind since all that time ago: 1) Magellan’s death site, which is a beachside memorial on the island of Mactan, and 2) also on Mactan, one of the guitar factories that that island is known for worldwide, and 3) Fort San Pedro over in Cebu City proper, and finally 4) also in Cebu City, the reliquary monument supposedly containing a piece of the original Magellan's Cross. This post will only be mostly about the national memorial to the chieftain LapuLapu, and the Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, killed by the former in April of 1521, with more to follo
w on the rest of our Cebu trip in future posts.

Unluckily, on the day we happened to go to “Lapu Lapu Beach,” or “Magellan Beach,” if you prefer, a typhoon was passing by close enough to reach out and touch us with a few of its outer windy rain bands. But that’s okay; we were still able to take it in before the really hard rain kept us trapped under the makeshift tarps at the site’s row of T-shirt and seashell shops.

Who knows if the site of the memorial is the exact spot where Magellan’s quest to circumnavigate the globe ended abruptly with his death here in the Philippines at the approximate half-way point (one of his lieutenants took over and actually made it the rest of the way around back to Spain). Chances are it’s not the exact same spot, nevertheless we do know that it took place on a beach on that part of Mactan; so it’s close enough.

I do know that it must be the traditionally accepted site since the oldest m
onument onsite is a stone block obelisk put up by the Spanish. I say evidently since the placard date is during the time of Spanish rule and the language on it is Spanish. One side states, “A Hernando De Magallanes,” with “Glorias Espanolas,” and “1866 Reinando Ysabel II” on the other sides. So, that particular monument is for the memory of Magellan to the Glory of Spain dedicated in 1866 during the reign of Queen Isabel the Second.

Notice that there is no mention of LapuLapu, the datu (chieftain) whose men famously killed Magellan. Based on what I know of colonial Spain I’m sure that the great notoriety and status now given to this pugnacious tribal chief was not in place until after the Spanish eviction in 1898.

On the other hand however, over in the more modern pavilion devoted to LapuLapu, with its mural of “The Battle of Mactan,”there is plenty of acclaim to this kampilan wielding killer of Magellan. I got a kick out of the inscription, the part that goes, “…Thus, LapuLapu became the first Filipino to have repelled European aggression.” Not trying to be too flippant, it should also say “and the last Filipino to do so,” since once the Spaniards got their footho
ld under Legaspi they were here to stay until the Americans finally did the actual repelling some 377 years later.

Interestingly, the story is told by the Italian Pigafetta, a follower of Magellan, and a survivor of the battle, that the only reason Magellan got into it against LapuLapu in the first place was at the behest of the rajah of Cebu, Humabon, who asked his new friend and supposedly militarily powerful ally, Magellan, to go over and settle the score once and for all with his old rival LapuLapu. Magellan made three classic errors: 1) getting involved in a fight that was not his, 2) underestimating his opponent, and 3) lack of good pre-battle intelligence.

There is a greater than life statue of LapuLapu facing the beach. When I showed him to the kids they all laughed at the close up shot of his backside, which seems to show him wearing an equally oversized diaper. I explained that it was actually a loincloth, but they insisted it was a diaper. Kids!

I gave LapuLapu some thought as I inspected his massive statuary physique and it occurred to me that if not for the fact that he killed a famous Portuguese explorer, chances are, no one would have ever heard of the guy. In effect, he is who he killed; something like the notoriety achieved by Mark David Chapman, the guy who killed John Lenin.

As for the memorial site itself, unless my mind plays tricks on me, it doesn’t look the same as I remember it from when I last saw it 24 years ago. Back then, I don’t believe the pavilion was up yet; all I remember is the big statue of LapuLapu and the Magellan obelisk.

I definitely like the improved garden aspect of it. There was little of that before and now it’s quite extensive. I saw three or four gardeners busily pruning, cultivating and snipping. Looking around the place though; if I’d been in charge, I would have had that crew pick up all the rubbish mucking up the place before allowing them to snip away at the grass and shrubs. Priorities dang it! For some reason the sight of trash
on the ground doesn’t seem intrusive to the folks in these parts. It drives me nuts; I can’t stand the sight of litter in an otherwise beautiful place. (sigh)

Another change is that an open view of the sea is no longer possible. This is because of the presence of a line of mangrove trees parallel to the beach that prevents all sight of the Camotes Sea. I’m pretty sure I could see the open water before. Chances are, they planted the mangroves to preserve the beach from storm erosion. The problem with that is that the beach no longer resembles the battle site, and being a purist when it comes to history, of course I’m going to complain about stuff like that.

Have you noticed I tend to be critical? Can’t help it; it’s my nature.

Here are all my photos from the memorial site on my flickr site.

Friday, January 23, 2009

First Communion

Last month, my soon-to-be-eight-year-old daughter accomplished her First Communion, a landmark event in every young Catholic’s religious life. I still dimly remember mine, and just think, it occurred roughly around the same timeframe that JFK was assassinated, which I also mostly remember. Yes it's true, I really AM that old.

Alas, my girls no longer live with me. I met them and their mom on a Wednesday morning in front of their town’s large Catholic cathedral; every town in the Philippines worth its salt has one, or two or three. Most, if not all, still use the old-fashioned wooden pews with slightly cushioned kneelers.

xxxxxxxxxxxx One of my mom's First Communion Photos

My heart melted when I caught my first glimpse of my little girl in her simple white dress and veil. She ran to me and gave me a big hug. I’m trying to think of the words: cute, pretty, sweet, they all apply, but they aren’t enough. Seeing her in that white dress, white signifying purity of spirit and devotion to God, absolutely choked me up and rendered my heart.

I remember thinking, ‘If only she could stay this innocent and perfect.’ Thinking it over these few weeks later, I say, ‘Well, she’s such a sweet kid; there’s no reason why she won’t always be just like that.’ And it’s true; to Dads, their daughters are forever their sweet little girls. In fact, my oldest daughter, almost 30, now with three little ones of her own, and my second oldest girl at 27, also with her own little sweetie angel, are both still “my girls,” and always will be.
Just like many other similar "happenings" in this country the First Communion I witnessed that day was more “production” than simple ceremony. Teachers and assistants really turn such things into momentous shows, nothing at all like the mostly uncomplicated rituals that I went through as a kid. I remember my nuns using clickers to let us know when to sit, kneel and stand. We had to go from here to there and then back to the first place. We sang a few hymns and had to remember to point our praying hand fingers directly up, toward God in Heaven, as we made our way to communion and back. Indeed, I wasn’t able to see my girls the weekend before “the big communion event,” because she “needed to practice” for most of both Saturday and Sunday. I don’t think I would have done such a thing when I was 7; I probably would have revolted, or at the very least moaned and whined a lot.

Then again, I noticed that the little boy communicants were not nearly as “into” the “performance” as their little girl counterparts. I have to admit, in so many ways, little girls, and big girls too for that matter, are so much more superior to boys and especially us “big boys.” Sometimes men are just lazy punks. Sometimes?

I spent most of the two plus hours of the service with my 5 year old girl. I was proud of her. She probably squirmed less than I did on that uncomfortable wooden pew during the whole of the interminable length of time it took us to get through that holy Catholic sacrament.
Truth be told though, I was happy to spend it with her since I get so little time with my girls anymore. I miss them terribly. Anymore, not seeing them for days at a time is like trying to hold my breath under water, and seeing them again is the same wonderful relief I get when I come out of the water and take that first big lungful of air.
What I considered to be an over lengthy service notwithstanding, I was both relieved and saddened to be at the end of it. I was happy to get off that unyielding wooden bench, but I was sad to have to leave my girls again. As for my daughter, she was proud of her new more grown-up status in The Church and was not the least put off by the length of all the pomp and circumstance that it took to attain it. I’m thinking now that the only one to feel even the slightest bit of impatience with the whole thing was cranky old me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First Papaya

Since I was four and cultivated a bean sprout from a seed, I have loved the miracle that is plants. And not just flowers and vegetables, but all plants; whether trees, weeds, or wild flowers, I’m fascinated by them all.

When I travel to new places, usually, the first thing I notice are the trees and flowers, after that, maybe the architecture, and way after that, perhaps the people. (I'm not a people person). If I see something green and growing that I’ve never seen before, I definitely take note, and probably a picture if I have a camera; I can’t help myself.

My first time in the tropics to Equatorial West Africa over three decades ago, one of the first things I remember noticing there were the crazy looking papayas with their long straight stalks and crowns of foliage at the top. Now THAT is one unique plant to someone who has mostly lived in temperate zones, as I always had up to that time.

Look carefully at the base of the wall in the above photo. Those are my papayas from last March.

The papaya is common, it’s everywhere you look in this country, but MAN, to me, it is SO cool. From my experience I can’t even think of another single plant to compare it to; I can only compare it to several others, as if the papaya is some kind of strange amalgamation of many kinds of plants. They grow like crazy almost anywhere, or not so crazy, depending on the soil and moisture conditions I suppose.

Check out the little papayas in the photo above. We planted them in late February or so and by March they were as you see. They got a little stunted from the boys as they put up that bamboo fence behind them, but once my little green guys got their roots under them, BAM!, up they shot.

xxxxxxxxxx By June they looked like this, about five feet high.
The girls were going to try and do a jump-and-snatch, but I insisted they use the dang ladder!

As I post this it is now mid-January, only ten months since we planted them. It’s taken quite some time for my largest and most robust papaya to finally bare an edible fruit, but it was definitely worth the wait.
But, before I talk about the fruit I have to confess that I’m not sure how to classify the plant. I mean, is it a bush, is it a tree, what IS it exactly? I guess it’s just a big fast growing plant. To me, it resembles a gigantic flower because of its over-sized flower-like center "stalk." My largest one of the four, at ten months has an honest-to-God trunk, exactly like a tree; but the huge long stemmed leaves all grow directly from this center “trunk,” which reminds me how leaves sprout from the main stalk of a flower plant.
So, no, I don’t think it’s a tree, at least not like any tree I can think of. Then again, maybe its related to the much slower growing palms or the similarly fast growing banana-types, all of which grow from the center, but the papaya just doesn't resemble these other types of plants as far as the fruit and leaves go. So, go figure...

That's the ripe papaya, the one below with the yellowish color, the others above are still green.
Then there’s the fruit itself… I’m trying to think of any other fruit that, depending on what stage it’s picked, or how it’s cooked, resembles either a fruit or a vegetable; and believe me, it CAN seem to be both.
For example, my favorite Filipino dish is chicken tinola cooked in a broth of stewed green papaya, which is definitely a vegetable; but then again, one of my favorite fruits are orangish-yellow, fully-ripened, delicately-juicy papaya slices. Eating it one way will not bring to mind the taste of it the other way. It’s as if they have two completely different taste and texture identities. Like I said, the papaya is really something!

I cannot get enough of the leaves, especially the view of them from directly below. Check it out; is there a God or what?
This particular papaya is only ten months old and it stands well over 15 feet. We just came from a visit to Cebu where I saw individual papaya "trees" that must have been at least twice that. These are not annuals or even biennials; one plant can evidently live for many years, and they seem able to continue to grow in height for the entirety of their life span.
Janine received "the honor" of picking the first papaya; plus she's young and spry enough not to get hurt too much if she falls off the ladder while picking it. Just kidding. No, she volunteered, when asked.
I think by next year, if we are still living here, we will have to get a taller ladder, that is if we are going to be able to keep plucking papayas from its ever higher heights.
xxxxxxxx The "fruit version," freshly sliced papaya chunks. My favorite!

Go here to check out the complete flickr set of "Papaya Picking."

Friday, January 16, 2009

BVA & The Black Jesus Friday

(Currently, we are conducting a VA benefits advice outreach at The American Consulate in Cebu City. I haven't been able to do much blogging for the past week because of it. By next Monday I should be back in the saddle. In the meantime, I wrote the following post just before we left for Cebu. By the way, BVA stands for Board of Veterans Appeals).

I don’t know how many BVA hearings I’ve attended over the years, maybe 30 or so. I’ve done so representing other veterans in arguing their claims for benefits in front of various Board of Veterans Appeals judges.

The hearings are always interesting for me. Most I’ve attended have been like the ones we did last Friday, called video conference hearings where the judge hears the case real time from Washington D.C. via satellite conferencing. We sit in a small room in the embassy with basically a webcam and a microphone aimed at us, while the judge has the same setup on the other side of the world in D.C. It’s an incredibly good system with no lag at all—pretty high tech.

There were a total of 6 hearings, but only two of them were ours. The VA hearing scheduler tells all the claimants to show up at the same time, in this case all six at 9 am, and then makes them wait while the judge listens to each argument one at a time.

The messed up scheduling system reminds me of the way many physician specialists make their appointments in this country. They do it in gaggle fashion, just as VARO Manila lines up its BVA hearing appointments, where everyone shows up at once and then are told to wait their turn. I once showed up for a gastroscopy at the time I was told to show up and ended up waiting for four hours because 5 or 6 other people had arrived just before me. I suppose they get away with that ridiculous setup because hardly anyone has a job here, so I guess the idea is that no one is supposed to feel bothered (and evidently, the only people who ARE bothered by it are the whiny Americans, like me). Well, the VA has evidently adopted this same kind of maddening appointment arrangement. I suppose it’s a case of “when in the Philippines, do as they do.”

What made last Friday particularly “interesting” for everyone who had to show up for the hearings was that it also happened to be the same day as “The Procession of the Black Nazarene,” or more precisely, “Let’s take the Black Jesus for a Walk Day.” It already takes us about two plus hours to get to the embassy from Angeles City, so instead of leaving at 0’dark thirty, we had to leave about 30 or 40 minutes even before that. Five hours in a car, boy is that fun, and just wonderful on my bad back. Oh well, as long as it does some good, what the heck.

If you have never gone through a BVA Hearing, here’s the drill. Before turning on the recorder, and yes, the hearing is recorded, the judge introduces herself (last Friday I was fortunate to experience my first woman BVA judge), and then she asks everyone on the other side of the camera who they are. She also wants to know who will be doing the questioning and answering (the service rep, me, will usually lead the claimant through the questioning). Once that is all established, she turns on the recorder and announces all the participants and the issue under appeal.

I like to see my veteran claimant at least twice to prepare for the hearing. The first meeting is to discuss out loud one more time why WE KNOW that the VA was wrong in denying the claim. By this time we’ve already advanced the argument on the substantive appeal form called the Form 9, but sometimes it’s been almost a year since it was turned in, so it’s important that we get it straight in our minds again. And sometimes, more evidence has come into existence that could help buttress our case. It’s important to know that we can actually turn in new evidence like that during the hearing, as long as a waiver of local determination is also turned in. If the waiver is not done, then the regional office is supposed to readjudicate using the fresh evidence. Needless to say, we usually sign the waiver, since not doing it could possibly add another year to the process!

I like to know exactly what I’m going to say to the judge, every word. There’s nothing worse than trying to “wing it.” Try to do that and two bad things can happen: one, things are said that can hurt the claim, and two, things aren’t said that could have helped the claim. I don’t want to leave the hearings chamber in a daze due to poor planning (and lack of practice) and have the thought come to mind on the drive home, ‘Oh man, we forgot to bring up…!’ or, ‘Why did we say that; what the heck were we thinking!”

The Substantive Appeal is written by the claimant’s representative to address the Reasons & Bases for the VA decision, all included in a VA document to the claimant called “The Statement of the Case,” and often, there is an addendum to the “SOC” called, “The Supplemental Statement of the Case.” At the first meeting with the veteran, in getting ready for the BVA hearing, I like to break down each bit of denial R&B rationale, and specifically answer each on paper.

We ask “Why is the rater or Decision Review Officer wrong in making these assertions?” “What code was violated or not complied with by the VA?” With the answers to those questions in mind, everything and anything is written that we might eventually incorporate into our final appeal argument to the judge at the hearing. No stone should be left unturned. The fact that I might have missed something is what makes me lose sleep the night before the hearing, or I should say that’s one of many reasons I lose sleep.

Two important points that I always seek to drive home to my vets long before we show up at the hearing is that the judge’s time is important, so keep to the script, and on that same note, do not wander off into issues that are not listed in the SOC. Usually, the judge will politely listen when a veteran does this foolishness, but in effect it takes emphasis away from the only thing that the judge is going to address anyway, and that’s the issue at hand.

For instance, I’ve had claimants go off on tangents like, “Your honor, I just want to use this opportunity to talk about how poorly I’ve been treated at the clinic here. They won’t give me the meds or treatment I need… blah blah blah.” The judge will nod for a minute or so, but all that’s really been accomplished, if anything, is to piss her off. The judge’s job is to listen to all the evidence of THE ISSUES and to make a decision on ONLY those issues. Many times the decisions are subjective anyway, to the point that they could go either way, so why in the world would you want to alienate the one person that could make or break your case?

The point is, stay on point, and make all responses complete but as brief as possible; and by all means, be as respectful as you possibly can. That’s what I tell my guys anyway.

Within a week of the actual hearing day I like to have a practice hearing. This is where I walk my client claimant through each step of what will happen. I will have already written down all the questions that I might ask the veteran during the hearing, and I’ll also have asked him to write the answers down for me to go over on paper. Once we’ve done this, usually by email, we are ready to do a face-to-face practice hearing.

Judges hate to have things read to them, so I prefer to write all the questions and responses as point-by-point talking papers. I ask the vet to read from it ONLY if they absolutely have to. It’s rare, but some are so anxious that they need to read their answers, but I try to discourage them from doing it.

Inevitably, as we run through our practice sessions I am able to pick up on some things that either need to be emphasized at the actual hearing or completely left out. The idea is to make sure that there are NO surprises in front of the judge.

And speaking of the judges, all are different, but all have much in common in the way they run their hearings as well. They go by their own generic script I’ve noticed. They all utter the same welcoming and ending phrases, especially at the end, where they all say, “I want to thank you for coming here today. I think that the opportunity to actually hear your arguments is very beneficial… and finally, I’d like to thank you for your service. And if that’s all, I’ll bring these proceedings to a close.”

VA raters, decision review officers and judges, all attempt to be judicious and noncommittal in their reactions. Aside from their body language though, even if you come out and ask them, slyly or not, what they think will happen, they will merely say that they will consider all the evidence available and make the very best decision possible.

There ARE times though, such as last Friday, where it’s possible to figure out what direction they are swaying decision wise. Of course, I’ve been fooled by raters and DROs before, where they seem to express strong empathy and understanding for the argument, and yet, STILL come up with a decision completely counter to that apparent compassion.

At the end of the hearing, all my vets ask the same question: “How do you think it went?” Because I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I always shrug and answer, “We’ll just have to wait and see...”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Take a Chill Pill Phil

Its moments like what just happened that remind me, and everyone around me, that I have a problem.

I don't like to use my clinical depressive state as an excuse for bad behavior, but "its all I got," so to speak. I say that half jokingly, but it's true that once my "trigger is tripped," that's all she wrote. I am officially "out of control," and it is an ugly thing to behold. Once I have entered slippery slope territory, it's figurative ass-over-tea kettle time, and down I go.

Well, ...a little while ago, ...down I went.

My current marriage, which is my second, is now ending because of it," the "it" being "my condition." And yes, I know it's all my fault. I KNOW I can make people feel pretty bad when I get going on them, and try as I might to stem the meanness, it still manages to come out.

I tried to explain to her what was going on, about the demons in my head, but there are only so many apologies and so many explanations before it becomes too much for anyone to bear. I don't blame her at all. I only hope my "next" will be more understanding than my "ex,"and be willing to stick it out. I am not hopeful.

Anyway, my neighbors on the other side of my back wall got a new puppy the other day. It looks to be about 3 or 4 months old, a cockerspaniel. I began to notice an incessant yapping the other night coming from somewhere over the fence, but couldn't be sure from exactly where. We called subdivision security and asked them to intervene so we could get some sleep. That seemed to work, but evidently only for the short term.

This afternoon, about an hour ago it started up again. Yap! Yap! YAP! YAP! ... ad nauseum... I went up to the second level of the tower to have a look. There it was, the cutest little cockerspaniel, but it was tied up by itself to a backdoor with about 6 feet of leash. The way it was acting, obviously, it was lonely. Dogs like that need people, its bred into them. Leave them alone, especially an untrained puppy, and they will yap and yap until they get what they want, which is attention. Well, it got attention all right, but too bad for its owner, the attention it attracted was from me.

I had warned Divine that I should not be the one to confront our neighbors about this "problem;" I just don't do well with social interchange anymore, especially when it involves "drama-drama," as they say here. I'm not sure if folks who know me understand what a trial it is for me to meet and advise the hand full of veterans and dependents that I try to help for a couple hours a day, four days a week. When I get home I am so tense with anxiety that it takes me hours to unwind. The meds do help though. I thank the VA for that.

The young dog was in full yap. I couldn't help myself, I called out: "Hello! Excuse me!"

Nothing. I called again, and again, and again, louder each time, and finally boomed out a full marine-voiced "HEY!" and I did so four or five times. I could feel the blood pounding in my carotids as my heart began to explode with anger. There was the slippery slope and down I went.

Finally, the lady of the house came out to see what I wanted.

"Maam, can you please control your animal? Its barking right outside my bedroom window and where I'm trying to watch TV on my porch. I can't even hear myself think, much less my TV."

I could feel my eyes bulging and my face betraying my steamed condition.

The answer she gave REALLY set me off, "The dog is here inside my yard. I don't have to do anything."

That enraged me beyond repair. I was now practically out of my head mad and yelled at her, "Are you aware of the subdivsion rules on barking dogs?"

"What rules?"

"You are supposed to control your dog so that it doesn't disturb your neighbors!" I didn't say it, I practically screamed it, I kind of had to over the yapping of her puppy, plus I was red-faced livid at her nonchalant in-your-face response.

I said a few other choice things as well, nothing profane, but full of venom and choked with intensity. Her teenage son came out of the house, or burst out, took a look at me, listened for a moment and went back inside. I began to realize that what was happening wasn't going to accomplish anything. I did have that much control, but it was too late, I was shaking with emotion.

What should have happened in the first place took place at that point. Divine went to the subdivision office and chatted up the lady who works there, as well as to the head of security. She brought them to our house where the lady confirmed that I am indeed correct about the "barking dog policy" and she informed me that she and security would go next to our neighbors and inform them of the rules. I was only beginning to calm down. Geez, what's wrong with me?

I took another "chill pill," which is what I call my psychotropics, and listened as the security guard and subdivision lady arrived at the yapping puppy house and explained to my angry neighbor that the dog had to be kept quiet as per the rules.

As we used to say in the old days, payback is a bitch, and I'm sure she'll be trying to exact some from me. I'm gone for the next week to Cebu, so she'll have a week to either get rid of the puppy or figure out how to keep it quiet. We'll see...

Anyway, where's my pills?

Snail Mulching

Every leaf that falls from my trees, all the grass clippings, and every bit of vegetable kitchen waste goes into the ground of my yard. I make sure of that. I learned to do that when I was a kid in Michigan, to mulch and compost all plant-type biodegradable material that happens to get generated in my immediate surroundings.

I learned to do that in school, in my Earth Science and Biology classes, as well as from the magazines my dad bought, especially one called Organic Gardening. Burning leaves or tossing out grass clippings with the regular garbage was unthinkable. Why would anyone do such a thing when they can easily let it break down naturally into its basic elements and thus re-nourish the soil?

I’m reminded every evening that there are unfortunates here who never heard of such environmental endeavors when I watch the ugly effects of scores of little raked up piles of twigs and leaves as each pile is lit up. From up in the tower I can see each burn spot from the telltale white smoke clouds. Up they go where they join together into one massive pall of hazy air pollution. Its dry season now so there's no cleansing by daily rainstorms and the drier it gets the more people want to burn stuff. As much as I would like it to be otherwise, it's what they do in places like this.

In fact, from my travels I’ve learned to equate the smell of smoke with the Third World. Whether Africa, South America or here in Asia, one thing all underdeveloped countries have in common is the acrid odor of burning, whether it is brush, garbage, or just from cooking fires; take a whiff, and for sure something will be alit nearby.

The poor here really seem to have this ingrained firebug penchant. Not long after I first moved into this house, I watched as one of my newly hired maids raked up a small pile of fallen leaves and a candy wrapper or two and then nonchalantly lit it up. She did this even though I pay to have my garbage picked up, notwithstanding that my desire to compost was not yet known to her. Rather than take the effort to pick it up and place it in the can, she opted to burn it. I wasn’t very happy with her, and the funny thing as I look back on it now is she could not figure out why I was so worked up over such a trivial thing, and trivial it was to her. She didn’t last here very long, and while she WAS here I don’t think she ever “got me.”

On that note, last week I was out mulching into the soil a few days worth of biodegradables. I don’t have a compost pile because they are a bit unsightly and odiferous, and with my yard being so compact I decided long ago to just bury the stuff, although I have developed a composting process.

My mulching process is to dig a two foot wide trench about three feet long along my bamboo fence and then lay down a layer of organic detritus. I mash it into the earth with the sharp end of a shovel, wet it down, shovel a thin deposit of earth over that, and then lay down another layer of detritus, and so on until I get 5 or 6 layers built up.

So I’m doing my composting thing last week when I notice a round object fall caked with a crust of dried mud roll out from under my bamboo fence. At first I thought it was a rock or a nasty old rubber ball. But once I washed the mud off it I discovered it to be a pretty hefty sized land snail.

I found that strange since I’ve been in this place for more than a year now, and I spend a lot of time in the yard, and yet, this is the first time I’ve seen any snails at all. In fact, I’ve lived in the area since 2002 and have never seen a snail anywhere around here.

I took a break to examine it. I love nature, so it’s what I do, what I’ve always done since I can remember. I much prefer natural things to things of man. I avoid the latter if I can and indulge in the former like an addict.

I went in the house for my Cybershot digital cam and took a few shots of my new snail friend as it enjoyed its newly dampened surroundings. When I first picked it up it had been dried up and dusty. I had the hose out and had wetted everything down as part of the mulching process. I’m pretty sure snails like it moist, and presently, during the midst of dry season, it had probably been in a dormant state waiting for it to start to rain again. Of course, all that is conjecture.

This particular gastropod, once washed off and cleaned up, I thought to be particularly photogenic. I turned on the macro function and clicked away. I really enjoy pictures like this, particularly when I watch them back on the computer screen on a slideshow when each shot fills the entire screen. Wow, the detail!

Snails can be tough on plant life, so I was considering releasing it outside the confines of my walls, but I figured what the heck, it’s only one. How much harm could it do? So, after the photo session I put it back where I had found it and wished it well.