Gun

My Uncle Daniel died during the night last night, after a long struggle with kidney and respiratory failure, bless him.

My mom has been one of his primary support coordinators for some time, even though she lives four hours away from his home in Pooler, Georgia. She was here in Des Moines for Thanksgiving weekend, and was supposed to fly home to Charlotte later this morning. I woke up around 4:00 AM today and heard her moving around downstairs, so I came down to see if she was okay, soon after she had gotten the 3:30 AM call from her sister Mary Glynn saying that Daniel was gone. It’s Mary Glynn’s 70th birthday today, but there will be no celebration, alas.

My mom and I worked with Delta Airlines to get her a new flight to Savannah at 6:00 AM so she could be there to help with arrangements, and she’s en route as I type. I give Delta a grateful nod of approval for being really responsive under the circumstances. I’m not used to good customer service from airlines.

We’re not really quite sure what’s going to happen when my Mom gets to Savannah, except to note that it’s likely to be difficult. Mary Glynn and my cousin Glynn (and Daniel himself) all have (had) some special needs to contend with, but they are very strong, and at their best when things are tough. They will need it now.

I wrote a (true) terza rima sonnet about Daniel and my father back in January 2004. I reproduce it here today in honor and memory of them both. It is called “Gun,” and it is complicated on a lot of planes, yet really simple on others. At bottom line: dignity comes wrapped in odd packaging sometimes. This is one such case. You’re done with the troubles of the world today, Daniel. Rest peacefully.

The main thing that he wanted was a gun.
He had other more pressing needs, of course,
But deep in his gut he still wanted one.

Not for self-defense or for show of force,
But just so that he didn’t feel unmanned:
by owning a gun, his adult standing was endorsed.

He was slower, yes, true, but understand
he was well smart enough to feel the sting
when patronized, and that’s why he planned

to get himself a gun, since that would bring
some small comfort when he felt sad or mean.
He wasn’t going to shoot anything.

(With a smile on his face, he sits and cleans
that rifle you bought him, until it gleams).

The King of Tests Strikes Out

Our fabulous globetrotting daughter, Katelin, recently expressed an interest in taking the Foreign Service Exam this summer as she looks forward to college graduation in 2013. I totally applaud her interest in this most excellent course of career paths, even though it reminds me of a less-than-stellar chapter in my own life, which I wrote about in 2003 for a print outlet in Albany. I reproduce my article on this topic below, with a few updates, in hopes that my own spawn (and everyone else) can learn from my experience . . .

Once upon a time, I was the King of Tests. I was a marginal student, at best, and would generally spend more time and effort trying to get out of studying or doing work than it would have taken to actually do the work — but any time anyone put any sort of standardized test in front of me, the vast seething library of arcana and noise that’s rattled around in my head since childhood would suddenly click to order, files and data organizing themselves for the dump, and the test would be mine.

Lest you have any doubts about how test driven our society is, let me assure you that a marginal work ethic and high test scores carried me further than most of my hard-working, low-testing peers. Elementary school standardized tests placed me in a variety of gifted and talented classes, where we spent all sorts of quality creative thinking and processing and analyzing time that masked the fact that we really were working far less hard and having far more goof-off time than the kids in the regular classes. Junior high aptitude tests indicated to guidance counselors that I was college track material, and advanced placement tests later ensured that when I got to college, that I would be able to skip all sorts of typical first and second year courses.

And the SAT’s? Oh, the SAT’s! My SAT scores, with no advance effort to prepare whatsoever, overcame tepid grades and a marginal extracurricular record to get me admitted to one of the most prestigious colleges in America, where I spent four years as the King of Cram, leading a posse of like-minded slugs in the “Late Night Study Club,” packing just enough information into our heads to barf it onto the test forms the following mornings. And then we slept. After college, I spent a year in a postgraduate program, drinking and sleeping and drinking and sleeping, only occasionally coming up for air to take the tests that would get me selected for a prestigious position in a high profile government organization in Washington, DC.

When that gig was winding down, my girlfriend and I decided that we would take the Federal Foreign Service Examination together and, once we passed it with flying colors, we would jet off for an exciting, cosmopolitan life abroad, doing our best royalty waves at the natives, eating in the world’s finest restaurants on expense accounts, hobnobbing with the intelligentsia, and sleeping really, really often and well. My girlfriend, being a serious academic sort, did all sorts of research into the Foreign Service Exam, took sample tests, boned up on political science and economics and history, talked to people who had taken and passed the test. I, on the other hand, slept really, really well the night before the exam — figuring that if all night cram sessions had work well for me all those years, then a “well rested, well tested” approach should really reap spectacular dividends.

The test itself seemed no harder or easier than any other standardized test that I’d ever taken, and I was one of the first in the room to finish, not bothering to go back and check my work since, hey, I never went back and checked my work. My girlfriend, on the other hand, worked diligently through the entire testing period, while I sat thinking patronizing thoughts about how cute it was when she worked so hard on things.

Six weeks or so passed, and my girlfriend called me at my office to tell me that, yay, she had gotten the results of the examination, and she had passed! I congratulated her, and congratulated myself, since (to my mind) the only thing that could have caused us to not spend our lives jetting around the world together was for her to have failed the test. I was so glad that her hard work and preparation had paid off, and that our lives would now unfold the way we’d planned them — and I told her that.

Wait . . . you are supposed to PREPARE for this test?!?! Whoa!!!!

But I’d spoken too soon, since when I got home that night and opened my own test results, I discovered to my shock, horror and dismay that I had not passed the Foreign Service Examination. In fact, I had not even gotten close to passing the Foreign Service Examination. I had failed in a fairly spectacular fashion, and now I had to call my girlfriend and eat crow of a variety that I’d never tasted, with a healthy slab of humble pie for dessert.

And I had to reassess two basic personal premises in my life. Firstly, I could no longer waltz in to a standardized exam setting without preparation and have it carry me forward to whatever next step I had in mind. And second, and perhaps more profoundly, I had to stop acting like I was the smartest person that I knew  — because a lifetime of tests telling me that I was in the 99th percentile of this or the top decile of that had imbued me with an arrogance about my own intellectual capabilities that made me certain that I was always right.

So there I was, hoisted by my own hubris, planning a life that wasn’t possible because the King of Tests had struck out. The logical reaction, then, perhaps would have been to take the test again and redeem myself as Lord of All That I Multiple Guessed, but my reaction was, instead, to turn my back on such tests entirely for many, many years, to let my failure be the victor, to let that moment be a benchmark for a different approach to life.

So I didn’t take a standardized test or a college exam for 20 years after that day, and instead focused my energies on actually doing and learning things in practical, hands-on fashion, trying to earn tangible kudos rather than bluffing my way into paper victories. I didn’t become a Foreign Service Officer, but that didn’t stop me from traveling abroad, and bringing up my daughter to value the international experience as well.

And the girlfriend in the story? Well, I figured that the only way to deal with people who were much smarter than me was to stay very, very close to them, just to see what might rub off. We’ve been together for some 25 years now, and I’m still learning from her, gratefully . . .

“So You Must Be Eric . . .”

On March 8, 1987, I graduated from Naval Supply Corps School in Athens, Georgia, and was given a one-month leave period to make my move to Arlington, Virginia. I was one of four from my year group in Athens (me, Mike, Bruce and Greg) who had been selected to work as procurement, logistics and budget officers at Naval Reactors Headquarters, which was considered a very prestigious posting.

After two days of moving from Georgia to Virginia, followed by 29 days of being dissolute, I checked in at my new office (Room 3N11 in National Center Two, on Clark Street, in Crystal City) on April 8, 1987, and spent a busy day learning the ropes, as Naval Reactors was very much a “throw you in the water to see if you can swim” sort of place.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, I managed a quick bathroom break and was hurrying back to my desk, when out of a door on the other side of the resource management department’s office area stepped an inordinately attractive blond woman, her charms made especially striking when encountered in a building dominated by badly-dressed male engineers.

The lovely woman had already met Mike, Bruce and Greg, as it turned out, and so properly deduced that I must be the fourth noob of that year’s Naval Reactors Supply Corps cohort.

“So, you must be Eric . . .” she said, being a friendly type.

And I said in reply, because I am not half as clever as I like to pretend: “Must I be?”

Then I scurried back to my cubicle.

Look what I caught! Can I keep it?!?

That was 25 years ago today, and that was the first conversation that Marcia and I ever had. Who could have possibly imagined where it would lead us?

It turned out we were neighbors, too, and we moved in similar social circles, so we saw each other a lot, at work and at play. I was quickly smitten, though it took a while before the feeling was mutual, and we didn’t start dating until about nine months after we met. After that, though, things moved quickly: within 18 months, we’d gotten engaged, bought a house together, and were married. The girl child (who is now 21) was born less than two years after that.

Then came Idaho. Then came New York. Then came Iowa. Wow.

I don’t know what I did that made me deserving of such an extraordinary life partner, but I’m thankful for whatever it was, and awed on a daily basis by my good fortune. So I must be Eric, indeed, and apparently, that’s just fine. Thank you, Marcia, for noticing. I love you with all of my being, and look forward to whatever adventures the next 25 years bring us!

Weather Conspiracy and Other Matters

1. The first half of January in Des Moines was so nice, weather-wise, that I had become convinced that the tales of severe Iowan winters were just a myth cobbled up and promulgated by the locals to keep expat New Yorkers like us from moving here. I have ridden my bike, worn shorts and hiked more in the past three weeks than I ever did in any winter month during my 18 years in Albany. Nice! Unfortunately, though, yesterday the temperature dropped into single digits, the wind kicked up with 50 mile per hour gusts, and the dry, stinging snow started flying. Oh well . . . I guess they do have winter in Iowa. But with an annual average snowfall of only 33 inches, I can’t imagine it being worse than a typical endless, icy, sleety, dark Upstate New York cold season. Fingers crossed. Katelin and I did some really nice walks during the warm spells, including another trek out the Great Western Trail and a nice walk around Saylorville Lake, per pics below:

Beautiful rural cemetery in Cumming, Iowa.

Road between Cumming and its cemetery, under big Midwestern skies.

Creek on the Great Western Trail.

On the Great Western Trail. (I love the missing blades on the weather vane, and the bullet holes in its tail, which become more obvious and visible if you click to enlarge this shot).

Trees reflected in a frozen creek, on the Great Western Trail.

Katelin on the trail around Saylorville Lake.

I will eat your soul . . . . I want your soul . . . .

Uhhh . . . . I think we will pass, thanks . . .

2. After hitting some campaign events in the final days before the Iowa Caucus, we did our civic duty and caucused with our neighbors last week, per photos below:

The bleachers were full to bursting for the caucus.

Katelin didn't like sitting in the bleachers (no back support), so she spent her first full-on participatory experience in electoral politics leaning against the wall on the other side of the gym. That's her in the black boots.

3. When I was in sixth grade, our family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while my dad attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College there. Last weekend, Katelin, Marcia and I went down to Kansas City for a night on the town, and on our way there, we popped over to Leavenworth to assess the old homestead. It didn’t look half bad, honestly:

We lived in the end unit of this apartment complex.

My bedroom window was the one on the second floor of the end unit, closest to the front of the house. When I looked out this window, I saw the distinctive dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. My next door neighbor was Rob Heinsoo, who went on to achieve a high degree of acclaim as a game designer, including serving as the lead designer for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. His brother (another Eric) and I were among his very first dungeon victims, and it was an absolute hoot to read about his tentative first dungeons many, many, many years later in this interview. I still remember the School for Dragons . . . there was no going forward after we bumbled into that. The Napoleonic war game mentioned in the interview was based on the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt and to this day, the only things I know and retain about that battle are based on the game. That was also the year that I became a life-long Kansas City Royals fan. Needless to say, Fort Leavenworth holds fond memories for me!

Note: Portions of this post also appear on Indie Moines’ New York-based sister site, Indie Albany.

My Crazy Feral Bachelor Weekend

This was my first of five weekends alone in my house, as Marcia and Katelin left for Des Moines on Thursday. It was quiet, and lonely, but as a student of American film-making, I understand that it is my sworn manly duty to take advantage of my temporary bachelorhood by engaging in all sorts of bad behavior, ideally while talking about really filthy stuff with my best friend, Seth Rogan. It took me a little while to get into the spirit of the thing, but I feel like I am catching on, as evidenced by the following deplorable behaviors that featured at Chateau J. Eric Solo this weekend:

  1. I cancelled a DVR taping of “The Good Wife” to watch the Packers-Falcons game.
  2. I parked in the very middle of the garage. Well . . . not quite the very middle, but not quite as close to the wall as I have historically parked, anyway.
  3. Instead of making my usual house salad for dinner (greens, sunflower seeds, bacon bits), I just ate the bacon bits out of the jar.
  4. I drank straight out of my water bottle without pouring it in a glass. Then, I got really crazy . . . and I drank straight out of Marcia’s water bottle.
  5. I put a pot in the dishwasher instead of washing it by hand in the sink.
  6. I threw away a Macy’s One-Day Sale Flyer without even looking at it.
  7. I sat in the hot tub four times in a day, instead of my usual three.
  8. I put Napalm Death on the Family iPod.
  9. I washed my colors and my lights together in one load, and even put a towel in with them.
  10. I turned the heat down to 62 at night, instead of the usual 64.
  11. I talked to the cats more than I talked to other human beings.

I’m feeling pretty depraved and debauched right now, as you can well imagine, after a crazy-ass bachelor weekend like that one! Next weekend, I’m thinking about really going over the top, maybe by sitting on Marcia and Katelin’s couch in the T.V. room when I watch the football game, rather than laying on the floor, as I did last night. I figure that ought to be enough to get my other best friend, Will Farrell, to come over so we can go run around the neighborhood in our ill-fitting tidy-whitey underwear while screaming and blubbering and stuff.

I sure am glad that I have Hollywood to show me what it means to be a man in America today!

Career Advice for Twenty-Somethings (Part Two): The Millennials

This post has moved to Marcia Brom Smith’s new blog, here. Please update your bookmarks.

Career Advice for Twenty-Somethings: The Introduction

This post has moved to Marcia Brom Smith’s new blog, here. Please update your bookmarks.

Ten Things I Learned the Hard Way

  1. When a woman says “It’s nice to be be in a relationship with you,” do not reply “What relationship?”
  2. If you don’t know what something on your plate is, don’t pop a whole big pile of it into your mouth without sampling it first. Especially if it is wasabi.
  3. It is a bad idea to shoot glass bottles with a slingshot. Even more so if you do it in someone’s bedroom.
  4. If you get into a confrontation with a college quarterback, his offensive line will spring to his rescue, even in a crowded bar.
  5. It is a bad idea to attack a giant fire ant mound with a bullwhip.
  6. Playing basketball and running are not, in fact, cures for plantar fasciitis. Similarly, pepperoni and cheese do not cure ulcers.
  7. Do not enter into a communal living arrangement if you find yourself thinking beforehand “It’s only a year . . . how bad could it be?”
  8. A Pontiac Fiero is really not a very good winter car. Nor is it a very good summer car, despite its awesome stereo system.
  9. If you are going to drink under a bridge, it’s best to not wear light colored clothing.
  10. Never tease a semi-wild polydactyl cat when it has a clean shot at your eyeballs.

What about you?

Listen

“I think I need to go to the vet,” said Hamburger.

The ponderous grey tabby cat sat on the kitchen counter next to his longtime human companion, Chloe, watching her attentively as she washed the dishes.

Chloe nodded slightly, but didn’t respond.

“I said, I think I might need to go to the vet,” Hamburger repeated. “This scratch on my head is really starting to hurt. Can you take me to the vet to get something for it, please?”

Chloe turned off the tap water and looked at the cat while drying her hands on her apron. The scratch above his right eye had definitely gotten infected. Could be a hematoma underneath it. Probably would need to be lanced and treated with some antibiotics if that was the case. She hoped it wasn’t.

She sighed. “Serves you right, you know,” Chloe said. “If you didn’t pick fights with Flyball all the time, she wouldn’t have popped you that way.”

“I didn’t pick anything,” Hamburger protested. “Fly popped me for no reason. If I’d have been bothering her, I would have been ready when she scratched me. But she just smacked me while I was sitting in the sun, minding my own business. And now it hurts, and I want to go to the vet.”

“I don’t have any money for the vet right now, Hamburger. Let’s put some antibiotic cream on it and then maybe a warm washcloth and see if we can’t make the swelling go down.”

Hamburger hopped off the counter and headed for the bathroom. “Just make sure you wring the water out of the washcloth before you use it,” he said as he left. “You know I hate it when you get me all wet.”

*****


It was bedtime, and Chloe hadn’t seen Skitsy all day.

“Has anyone in here seen Skitsy?” she called. “Hamburger? Jeep? Flyball? Sammy? Anybody?”

“Nope.”

“Sorry.”

“No. Haven’t seen her.”

“Sammy? Have you seen Skitsy?”

“She was under the trailer before dinner, I think,” Sammy murmured from beneath the comforter. “But I haven’t seen her since then.”

“Hamburger, will you please go check under the trailer and see if Skitsy’s there?” Chloe said, nudging the portly tabby with her foot.

“Why do I have to go,” Hamburger groused. “I’m hurt. Make Flyball go.”

“No, you go. Skitsy’s afraid of Flyball. She only listens to you. Go find her. Quick. Otherwise it’ll be your fault if she gets eaten by a snake tonight.”

Hamburger waddled to the edge of the bed and jumped down with thump. “I don’t care if she gets eaten by a snake,” he said. “There’d be more food for the rest of us if she did.”

“You don’t need any more food, you fat old man,” Chloe scolded.

“Hey, don’t blame me for being fat,” Hamburger said as he squeezed through the cat door. “I wasn’t the one who went and had myself neutered.”

*****


“When are the ladies coming?” asked Skitsy, nervously washing her tail. “I don’t like the ladies.”

“Oh, they should be here any time now, I guess,” answered Chloe. “But they won’t hurt you. I don’t know why you’re scared of them.”

“They don’t like the way we live. They don’t like our trailer. They want us to move. That’s why we’re scared of them. This is our home.”

“That’s right. It is our home. And it doesn’t matter what . . .”

Chloe was interrupted by a loud banging and clattering as Hamburger, Jeep, Sammy and Flyball all tried to get through the cat door at the same time.

“Car!” yelled Jeep.

“The ladies are here!” seconded Sammy.

“Ow! Ow! Why’d you do that, Flyball, I’m just trying to get inside! Ow!”

One by one, the cats funneled in through the door, then skittered across the linoleum floor and headed for the bedroom, where they would hide in the closet until the hated ladies had gone. Skitsy’s paranoia was contagious. Even Chloe felt it sometimes.

She took a deep breath, ran her fingers through her hair, checked her clothes for food stains and smoothed out her shirt as best she could. Then Chloe looked at the red light above the door that would flash and let her know when Norene, her social worker, had pressed the button outside. The button made no sound, which didn’t matter, because Chloe couldn’t hear it if it did.

The red light flashed and Chloe peeked through the curtain before opening the door. Norene stood on the porch scowling, with the county’s sign language interpreter standing behind her, her hands at her side, silent. Chloe let them in.

Norene flopped on the couch, fanning herself, while the interpreter sat on Chloe’s ottoman. The social worker jumped straight into her usual litany as the interpreter furiously gestured to keep up.

“You can’t stay here,” the interpreter signed, translating the highlights of Norene’s standard monologue. “It isn’t safe for a woman to be here alone, especially a woman with your special needs . . . it’s not sanitary . . . you need other human contact . . . too many cats in this trailer . . . what about the doctor. . . too much starchy food . . . poor personal grooming . . . no food stamps for cat food . . . something has to change, Chloe, something has to change . . .”

Chloe stopped paying attention to the interpreter after ten minutes or so, and just nodded at Norene until the social worker stopped, shook a finger Chloe’s way, and left in a huff, still fanning herself, sucking the interpreter out in the slipstream of her distaste.

*****


It took about an hour before the cats felt comfortable enough to emerge from the closet and come sit with (or in Hamburger’s case, on) Chloe.

“Why do the ladies keep coming and telling you that you have to leave,” asked Flyball. “It just makes me want to scratch the stew out of them both! Haven’t you told them a thousand times that you’re happy here?”

“Yes,” said Chloe, scratching Hamburger’s head, which seemed to be healing nicely. “But some people just don’t know how to listen.”

*****

 


Compromising On the Road to My Horizon

This post has moved to Marcia Brom Smith’s new blog, here. Please update your bookmarks.

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