Archive | July 2007

It rained

There had been water in the sky all day, seen and unseen, in clouds and that wet blanket of summer air that puts the kibosh on appreciating the outdoors. Roommate Adrian and I walked out to the car and headed toward a few stops before home.

As is the case with rain, it can seem to be almost upon a given area, but will hold off for some reason. You can’t trust rain. It never follows predictions. At best you get some percentage from the weather diviners. Percentage? Like when rain is hitting you in the face, it’s only doing so at a 40 percent chance?

No, no, I see rain like I see all aspects of life—either I’m wet or dry, 50-50 chance. “What are my odds on winning the lottery?” Again, 50-50, either you will or you won’t. This truth applies to most things. Just say “Insha’Allah” a lot and you’ll get the idea.

Rain’s punctual ambiguity is like some sick joke that keeps an umbrella out of my hand when I need it most—though, point of fact, I’m not allowed to carry umbrellas while in the military, regardless; so each and every rainstorm remains a sick joke. A man, an invention, and the insurmountable legalities that keeps one from another.

…Though, to think on it, I’ve never owned an umbrella, before the Army or after, so I suppose that deflates the argument a tad. Be that as it may, having the right to a thing and refusing to partake is quite different than having no access at all to a thing. Right? Who’s with me?!

In any case, after the errands, we were on the path toward the apartment. I had hoped to run in the woods that afternoon and allow the humidity to make an attempt on my life. I worried as mark after mark of the center line passed and the sky looked ever rainier. The first drops began to fall.

“Quick, damn you! Floor it, the hounds are almost on us!” I shrieked to Adrian.

Well, point of fact, I didn’t so much yell…or say anything at all, really.

I decided in the pause in conversation between roommate Adrian and I that I would play out a “Hunter S. Thompson-esque” dialog in my mind, where I perceived the rain as a mangy mutt, who had, to this point, lain lazily in the summer clouds, a harm to no one.

But then, as our car roared out of the lot…well—gently conformed to the speed limit out of the lot, the beast frothed at the mouth and started its chase. It wasn’t happy to let the plain humidity have me, it would run our car down as we sped south, putting a damper on any running plans and panging a chord of frustration in the owners of every newly-washed car on that road.

My heart groaned at the rain.

I have no huge love for running, and the downpour was a good excuse to stay in and do the ol’ balcony exercise thing. There I watched the rain, having lost all dog-like characteristics and returned to simple showers. Enough of it splashed and wet the balcony and I let it wash over my face for a minute.

Then, I thought, of the exhaust of the billions of commutes that had pooled in that water, along with the sizable quantities of smoke, trash burning, refuse and all manner of industrial crap that probably lingered in the sky. On it’s way down, hitting the outside of the building and running down, dripping and absorbing grit along the way, it made its way to my face. Yes, as refreshing as washing in landslide water.

And, with that, I took a shower, and put an umbrella on my shopping list. Ok, I didn’t go so far as to put one on any list, but it did make for a snappy end, eh?

###

A man on the road

A man sat on the slight incline of the grassy median with his knees loosely to his chest. He didn’t move. His sunglasses hid from us any clue from his eyes, but he stayed there, sternly looking through any possible engaging social distance to the cars that slowly passed on the highway.

He glared, not at the crawling traffic, but through that as well, perhaps back through time into the past few minutes. A car lay flipped a few yards to his right. Broken glass scattered over the long grass, catching bits of the setting sun. The man left his shades on. He could have been a statue.

Police and firemen were just arriving, but traffic already slowed to a procession. The solemn man was on display.

There was no blood, at least none visible. The speed at which the police and firemen moved did not relay any serious injury. There was just the car and the man, glaring.

I suppose it would be embarrassing on one hand, expensive on the other. Who knows what was racing through that guy’s mind. Tell the wife? Afford the insurance? Late for dinner?

And for all the cars and drivers that looked over and made their way past the scene into faster lanes, it must be very awkward for the man in the grass, like those that see a boy who’s wet his pants try to dart into a nearby bathroom.

Maybe it was a spilled drink, but in that spot, the boy knows what everybody who sees it will think. It’s the same for this guy, I’m afraid.

Sulking in the moment, a broken vehicle draws stares and ire from the thousands of us who just wanted to get somewhere. At least if there had been injuries, we could have said, “How horrible!” and dished out a bit of pity.

Now, for the stern man, it’s just our quick judgments on what happened and off to the rest of the evening.

Poor bastard.

###

When is enough too much?

My friend Nikos was showing me one of his projects on a computer.

We were in our late-morning attire (i.e. PJs) after a hard couple of hours of coffee and frank conversation. Nikos is a man after my own heart: a sociologist and philosopher. He was going through something he had worked on for school (I think…it’s been a few years). One of the charts was about emotional highs and lows.

He asked me if I was someone who thought it would be better to experience elation and deep sadness, or if I’d prefer a more stable emotional state. The chart showed a red line resembling the results of a heart monitor with sharp ups and downs, and then a blue line with relative flatness—only slight bumps.

To be honest, I picked the boring line. From a practical view, I thought it would be better to count on myself that, on any given day, I’d be ready to face down life.

Nikos was blown away. He always was someone who tried for the limits of life. He was taken aback, I think, that someone would want the boring line. And I started to wonder if I had bad priorities.

I had always been focused on doing things well. In college, I shifted majors often, but I always excelled. I adapted and learned my ephemeral trades as fully as I could. Later, when I finally settled down on a major (video media production), I kept pushing.

I pulled all-nighters, purchased my own gear, produced films that won some local nods. Again, always going for being the best.

But I never did much apart from my studies, never really dated around or explored relationships. I did have a lot of friends, but only a scant few good ones. I don’t know how I was to live with, but I know I could be distant—always focusing on work.

After college, I plunged into the Army life and tried my hand at writing. I pushed to learn what I could. And I think I’ve done all right. Things have turned out nicely. I’ve worked to enough milestones to say I’m a writer—quality always notwithstanding.

Yet I still think back to that time with Nikos and wonder if I’m still on the boring line. Have I not risked enough? Am I still too focused on work? Am I boring? Pretentious?

If so, there’s time to change. Nikos is someone I look up to for lessons on passionate living. I think it is a better way to live to want the highs and lows, even if it isn’t the most “productive” from a working standpoint.

After all, how much do small accolades and professional milestones matter in the ebb of life? I think back to all the speeches and introductions I’ve weathered as a listener, nodding off as the initial speaker cited professional credentials. I don’t remember much of what those speakers said, only that I hated hearing how blasted qualified they were.

Forget pure competence. There are more dimensions to life than work. With time and the new gig, I’ll try to break free a bit.

###

OPK overdose

Sound is a series of pressure waves that interact with the organs in our ears to produce vibrations we perceive as acoustic phenomena. I sometimes wonder, if we could rearrange the molecules in the air at will, we could craft the most pleasant and soothing surges of soft and comforting sound imaginable. Furthermore, I sometimes think on how, at any given time, the air around me could possess, by itself, the right combination of timbres and tones to help any particular second pass with audible ease.

So, when the fates conspire to trap me in an airplane with unrelenting sound waves of screeching and whining from Other People’s Kids, I cry out to God for the super-human ability to shape sound. However, I am normally left to the mercies of OPK.

For the bulk of my journey to Oregon to see my folks, I was surrounded. It was nearly the end of me.

To my front was a toddler. He was fairly uncouth about staying put and let out with wailing shrieks every few seconds as his meek parents tried to keep him in their laps. As sitting still was the normal activity on a plane, his aversion to quiescence set the stage for one of the oldest categories of human conflict: man verses environment. Every so often he’d break lose and run to the other side of the aisle, then back. Only to be scooped up by his father and whispered to, I assume about not running across the aisle. He would then squirm and shriek again until he escaped to run his paces.

Across my aisle was a young, wide-eyed boy who had a Nintendo DS. “Good,” I thought, “He’d have something to help him pass the time.” His father next to him had one also and seemed to tune out the boy as he cackled and yelled every few seconds, reacting to his game, giving those around him a running commentary on his progress.

Across the aisle and behind me was a chatty child, a future Jeopardy contestant, asking his father every perceivable question about the position of the air nozzles, to the angle of the sunlight, to the flower patterns on the seats, to the sound a camel makes, to the speed of said camels, running…On and on in rapid fire, the mother flatly shrugging off the queries or making up answers as she went along.

Behind me were two future soccer stars, who routinely kicked and prodded the seat backs. It didn’t happen often enough to warrant a glare, especially as I heard the father trying to maintain control, but was enough, when paired with the additional OPKs, to…

…slowly…

…drive…

…me…

…insane.

I sat, eyes open, in a perpetual stare at the seats in front of me, bound and determined not to lose this fight. I could win. My mind was strong. The undulating decibels of the shrieking made me squint, the kicks made me squirm, and the video gaming and truth-seeking made my ears bleed; but, in the end, when it was all over, our plane at rest at the gate. I recaptured some of that feeling of triumph I possessed when I returned from war in Iraq.

While I was shaken and a little fatigued, I carried on to my next flight. While I shared the cabin again with the shrieker, he had fallen fast asleep in his father’s arms—finally an answer from God!

I know when I have kids, I’ll “understand.” But until that day, OPKs make me nervous, and a little jittery, especially when I’m sharing such close conditions.

###

Back to the poster board

So, I’ve received my first “commission” of sorts. I am to design the tickets and poster for our campus holiday party.

Normally its one of those “uugh!” extra duties that is shoveled on some unwitting person, but as a budding graphic designer (who has been budding for too many years without much forward movement) I’d actually like to put some effort into this gig.

Posters are a neat medium. They are meant to capture the attention and convey information, which is the purpose of all art. However, posters have to put out an inordinate amount of text and data for a visual medium, all while retaining grace and focused clarity.

Everybody will see it, which will undoubtedly lead to requests for posters for upcoming car washes and bake sales. Again, these can be treated as worthwhile opportunities. I mean, how many designers focus on cupcakes and soap suds?

Not that I’d see this as a portal to a career, but it’s a good exercise.

Anyone have any modern poster designers they get inspiration from? I am a huge fan of Scott Hansen.

My puka (that’s Hawaiian for “hole”, which is the hip way of saying “cubicle”) is still bare. The gray fabric walls and slightly cluttered desk shriek “normal.” I have some plans for the space, which roommate Adrian ribs me for, as he points out I won’t be in there much while teaching.

Still, a few pics and a poster here and there will spice it up. It’s like making sure your car is washed. Sure, you might not be around it through the day, but other people take notice.

Also also, I am rebuilding my flickr library. I’ll get a link up on the right.

###

Multiple interviews

One of the aspects of being an instructor of journalism is the interview—both in teaching how to give one and, in order to practice, allowing students to conduct them.

Luckily there are multiple instructors. However, there are also multiple classes, so it comes out in the wash. Already in two-ish weeks of student interaction (remember, I’m still in training myself), I’ve done around six or seven.

Which is fine, but I can only imagine just how many times I’ll have a sit down and chat with students about all manner of crap during these next couple of years. It does stroke the ego, thinking that the budding writers actually want to hear what I have to say. But then they are using another aspect of being good journalists—active listening.

Every time they nod or look concerned, the sneaks are using the techniques we taught them to show interest in what’s being said. I guess its all a sham unless you want to believe the charade.

It is a switch, to change the subject, going from intrepid reporter to supposed sage of writing wisdom. I have to remind these guys that some of them have been in the military longer than I have. I’m just four and a half years into this thing—not too long at all. So I definitely don’t think I’m the end all be all of insight and experience.

Still, I have done the war thing, have received a couple of award nods along the way. I guess that counts for something (enough to get this job in the first place). I’ll go from there.

And there is the requisite of good teaching that is to want to learn. I hope to get as much out of interacting with my students as they get from me. I think that’s a good place to start, and a healthy way to endow technical knowledge and writing savvy.

I look forward to the scores of interviews. Its why I fundamentally enjoy being a journalist—learning about people.

###

Really? Well let’s go.

While the story about the Iraqi Prime Minister [link] saying the U.S. could feel free to leave “anytime they want” is making its rounds among some circles, do we really think it will affect anything?

Al-Maliki has made “we’re doing fine” comments before, much to the ire of analysts and generals in the U.S. military, who paint a much less rosy picture of “progress” in Iraq.

Take the recent report [link] published last week, outlining 18 benchmarks that the U.S. apparently decided to gauge the Iraqi’s on. Half were marked as having “satisfactory” progress, while the remainder had no to little progress.

But my point is not on if there is or isn’t progress to be made in Iraq. It’s not to argue who is correct—whether it be the Iraqis or Americans. My point, dear friends, is that if the Iraqis themselves, as made apparent through reports [link], polls [link], protests [link], bombings [link], and now the prime minister himself, feel that they’d rather rebuild on their own, then let’s go the &#*^ home!

Honestly, we’re always saying how we have to stay, how we have no choice, how they can’t do anything without us, how we have to train them.

Milestone after milestone is reached, passed, exceeded and forgotten, and nothing changes. Years ago, we had tens of thousands of Iraqi troops ready to take over. Remember all that unit level 1/2/3 readiness crap? Iraqi troops will be ready by this date, then this date, then this.

We used to constantly run stories in the Army about transfer of responsibility ceremonies, where whole regions were given over to the Iraqis. Was that just for show? Did we re-take them once the cameras turned off?

If you believe all the stuff that is put out; how morale is high, how we’re winning, how dozens of top enemy leaders (terrorist and insurgent) are neutralized every week (it seems), how schools are open, how the security situation is improving everyday…if every moment is an absolute success thanks to the competence and professionalism of the U.S. forces and fledgling Iraqi army…then why can’t we go home?

And if it isn’t all fine (which it isn’t, go over there and see for yourself), then what’s with all the lies? Are things getting better? Will they ever? It seems so strange that we’re so damned hard-on about staying there forever.

There are several good documentaries out that touch on the Iraqi perspective of this conflict. Not from the insurgents viewpoint (not directly), but of the civilians who feel so utterly exasperated at the ruin of their country and the occupation of their homes by brutish foreign armies. I’m sure some of them are “slanted” (i.e. “liberal, i.e. “evil”), but one does have to wonder how the everyday worker/husband/wife/whomever feels about these invaders babysitting them.

I mean, how well would we have responded if France or England invaded during our civil war to ensure we “knew what we were doing”? I know it’s an illustration that’s used a lot; but seriously, would we have welcomed an occupying army during our time of instability? Even if it was for the sake of “democracy”?

Can we bring our friends home? The Iraqis want to get through this tough time on their own. Why is that so unreasonable?

And don’t feed me the “they’ll be flooding our country with bombs tomorrow if we leave today” reasoning. What and more Hadithas and Abu Ghraibs will help?

The world has never been safe. It never will be. I don’t think forcing foreign governments at gunpoint to accept our merchants, drive our cars and watch our television shows will make it any safer, if turns out to be why we’re there after all.

We’re there (supposedly) to help and that’s noble. That’s great and well intentioned, I’m sure. But do the Iraqi’s have any say in how to rebuild their country?

If there’s no hard feelings if we scoot back to the states, then I’m for it. Lets start letting military families heal, help our wounded warriors and reinforce our National Guard and Reserves, before things fall apart here at home.

###

Something we stress to students

I’m a closet perfectionist. Although segments of my life can be cluttered, there are aspects where I hone my efforts to a razor’s edge. My studies are typically one of them.

Even though I try to play off how seriously I take college and even work, there always is this sort of inner fire that sparks my drive to put my heart and soul into things. Be it stories, speeches, publications, really anything—if I don’t reign myself in, I’ll stress and spend every waking second tweaking, doubting and making a general mess of my disposition, all for the quest of making something perfect.

Certain students here at our journalism school do the same things during their assignments. Come to think of it, I did go through some spouts of obsessiveness with my assignments, flinching and grimacing when I lost two points for something like comma use! Oh God oh God!

So I know the feeling of wanting to be great at this training. I remember wanting to write about subjects that hadn’t been covered before, or coming up with new angles. Honestly, these instructors have seen hundreds and thousands of stories, all about the same core group of subjects, finding a “new” subject isn’t the focus—writing well is the goal. All of the extra stress at being different and unique is unwarranted.

If the students spend too much time obsessing about perfecting every aspect of a story oftentimes they’ll miss the basic stuff and even fail assignments. So the instructors constantly have to get them to back off, take their time, and not try to be different, just competent. Not that the military doesn’t want creative writers, but this training is a process of teaching the basics, there is plenty of time to grow and develop as a writer afterwards.

My speech, which I’ll give regularly, once I am certified to teach, will go something like this:

Students. The time as come for you to begin the segment of your training where you’ll produce a series of feature stories. This exercise will draw from everything you have learned thus far. It will be challenging, but rewarding.

Many of you will spend hours and hours on single assignments, fretting and stressing out about how to make a singularly unique story.

Don’t.

Right now you are at the beginning of your careers. Think of it as…well, an empty meadow, surrounded by trees, representing the works of other writers and journalists before you.

You want to add as many trees as you can to your meadow, so you can have a strong…forest? To shade…your legacy?

At this point I’ll put on a confused look to get a few laughs that Staff Sgt. Salmons is off his rocker again. But, to continue:

Now, to plant a forest, you need trees, lots of trees. Think of the trees each as a story you’ve written. Most trees on the grounds surrounding the meadow are tall and strong, full of literary tension and effect. And you want to get to that point where your plot of land is full of those proud trees (representing stories…stay with me).

Some students will freak and stress over writing these upcoming features way too much, and will be like the person who plants a single tree and sits next to it, watering it, fretting over it, and spending every moment testing the soil and ensuring proper growth.

While some of this care is necessary to make a good story, if the person spends the whole day on one tree, he or she is hardly on the way to a full forest.

No, instead, a young journalist must know to focus on correctly planting many trees. Some may die—maybe from wind, or a tree disease…whatever; but as that journalist continues to plant and learn, without growing too attached to any one tree, eventually the person’s body of work will grow into the forest he or she wants.

Alright, story time over.

And thus, I will have worked a squishy, lovey dovey story about trees into my canon. Horray for hippies.

###

Around the tower

Down below, in the parking lot, there’s an old gray truck—the kind you’d see with “SWAT” painted on the side, or maybe with a little window to serve out ice cream.

It has a boot on its front tire. Roommate Adrian remembered seeing the driver out there a few weeks ago, getting the boot removed the first time.

“He was a vet, and in a wheelchair. Nice guy. He saw me in uniform and talked with me for a while. He got them to take the boot off his truck.”

But the boot was back on. I hadn’t seen this guy, myself, but wondered about him every morning and afternoon I passed the truck.

In the night, the distant city lights atop our fellow high rises flicker with the heat, like ground-borne stars, millions of times dimmer, closer, and less impressive. The siren calls of police and the ambulance validate the skyline as urban and hush the concerns of us here that maybe we had slipped out of the hip metropolitan and into the wilds of rural America.

Yesterday evening I entered the elevator at the bottom-most floor and stopped one up in the lobby. In came five women, who each stopped at the door, startled at seeing a man in an Army physical fitness uniform drenched in sweat, clutching a large black plastic bin.

I’m sure things would have made more sense if I offered the information that I’d just returned from a run, remembered I had a bin of things in my car, fetched it on the way in, and was just now heading toward my 15th floor apartment. But I just smiled, squinting at the salt stinging my eyes, leaving each to take in the scene.

“What floor?” one of the ladies asked. My choice had already been selected.

Turns out we all were going to the 15th floor. Figure the odds that six people entering an elevator would all be from the same floor? We had a few chuckles about it and said we should host a social event in the elevators—serve refreshments to other residents and such, all from the friendship garnered from a chance trip upstairs. I made the obvious line about showering next time. Laughs all around.

And then came Tuesday.

###

Curbing the charitable appetite

Today was shopping day—well, “Transformers” viewing and shopping day. Roommate, his girlfriend and I (we need to come up with something that summarizes the three of us), went to a local mall to see a flick and get me some clothes, as the bulk of my stuff will remain in storage until a larger apartment opens up this fall.

So, off we went to a place called Arundel Mills, a sprawling mall near Fort Meade that includes a 28-screen theater, a “Medieval Times,” a “Dave and Buster’s” and nearly every imaginable store and restaurant, all conveniently priced as high as possible to emphasize the convenience of the attractions. Nice, eh?

Movie plus refreshments equaled a tank of gas and got the day started. Afterwards, we three made our way around the interior mall loop, grabbing some lunch and stopping in to shops here and there as I spotted things I needed for my extended sleepover.

Lo and behold, there was a small table for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital parked near the food court, and several genuine, caring people stood around it, watching for anyone to make eye contact. Most didn’t, but a few did, and they were greeted with a smile. Something like St. Jude’s isn’t a hard sell. It’s a chance to give a little bit of comfort to a young person who has spent most of his or her life in pain and sickness. I had some bills in my wallet, and was fine about handing them over…but where was the box?

“Hi, there, have you heard about St. Jude’s?” The young guy nearest to me asked. He was in a Sunday Best set of clothes, with a bright red sweatshirt over top with the St. Jude’s logo in white letters.

“Yes, I know about it. Where’s your collection box?” I asked, surprised.

“Well, we’re trying to get people a little more involved that just a one-time contribution,” he explained, and went on to tell me how they were hoping for something like a $25 per-month commitment for the year, instead of just a spare-change offer. He showed me some figures and brochures on just how much it costs for all the tests and treatments these children need.

I took a brochure and told him I’d visit the website, but that I wasn’t ready to sign up just then. In all honesty, I wanted to check if I could give through the Combined Federal Campaign, which is the big charity drive the military participates in, and takes things straight out of our paychecks. It’s an easier go for us than an outside push for money, but I could see from the guy’s face that he thought it was just another “no thanks.”

He kindly wished me well and turned toward another approaching crowd. And I felt like an outright jerk. “No thanks,” to helping sick children. Yikes, I was a bastard.

And, sure enough, I went on to buy a couple of shirts and a pair of shoes, and each ratchet of $25 clicked in my head as another moment in someone’s life that could be made easier, if they just had the money, verses another shirt in my closet. And of course the inflated prices of the mall didn’t help either.

Makes you want to make a vow of poverty, sometimes.

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