a fleeting number of days

I had a fantastic day with my kid on Friday.  It saddens me a little that everybody (you know, “THEY”) says as my daughter gets older, the opportunity for those days will fade.  I don’t know if I’m willing to let that happen, but then again, I may have no choice.

I took the day off work and kept her home from school.  We planned to go to Richmond and just kind of bang around, go to a museum, get lunch, etc.  Not a terribly rigid plan.  I think I finally woke her up at 7.30, planning to leave at 8.30.  We more or less got out the door around then, but we had to stop to put air in the car tires (which required waiting 10 minutes for a nearly completely clueless dude to use the air machine before us – if only I hadn’t wanted to turn around first!).  I let her get breakfast at McD’s (which is maybe the 1st time I’ve let her do this in the last 5 years at least) and we hit the road.

I-95 wasn’t too bad except down around Dumfries/Quantico where all the construction is.  I thought about bailing out to US 1, but we weren’t really in a hurry, so I stayed on the highway.  I figured it would clear up sooner or later and it did.  South of Fredericksburg on I-95 is a real joy – clean, smooth highway and very little traffic.  I can’t wait to get out of this area to get away from the shitty traffic and sheer number of horrible people that live up here in NOVA.

I mentioned something about the traffic, which led to a long discussion about moving.  We plan to move south in two years when she finishes middle school, and I’m leaning heavily towards the general Charlottesville area.  One of the big reasons for the move is that I want to buy a house, and I simply can’t afford one in Fairfax.  I might be able to buy a tiny condo or a shitty, run-down townhouse, but a decent house with a garage is just out of my salary’s reach up here.

The conversations about moving are awkward.  My daughter is 12 and while she’s lived in 4 different houses (well, 3 houses & 1 apartment) in her life, she went to one elementary school and will go to one middle school.  We’ve worked very hard to make sure she has that opportunity.  As a military brat who got dragged all over the US & Europe, I wanted her to have the same set of friends for as long as possible.  I want her to go to one high school, too – but not one in NOVA!  Being 12, she can’t see the bigger picture and doesn’t understand about cost of living.  Up here, just to get by, I have to work a full time job AND a part time job; her mother has to have a full time job, too, and some months are still tight.  We could feasibly get by on just my full time job in Charlottesville AND be able to buy a house to boot.  Maybe not IN C’ville, but in that area.  I’m very much looking forward to it.


We planned to go to the Science Museum of Virginia, then get lunch, but because of traffic, it was about 1030 by the time we got to the outskirts of Richmond.  We changed our plan to go to a used book store (Chop Suey) and a fun toy store (House of Mirth), then get lunch, THEN go to the museum.  That way we could spend as much time at the museum as we wanted and not be rushing to do anything else.

Chop Suey is a neat, funky little bookstore.  Their prices are a bit high (no $1 bargains), but their quality is high, too (no crappy, half-destroyed books).  Very weak science fiction section, but we found some good stuff.  My daughter picked out a book about a classic (very old) comic strip called The Culture Corner. It reminded us of the Disney cartoons where Goofy is learning how to do something – play baseball, ride a horse – and it all goes horribly wrong.  It did my heart good to see her take an interest in an art form that’s on life support – and the strips are REALLY funny.

House of Mirth is just about the coolest little shop ever, but their prices are REALLY high.  We got an $8 zombie card game that looks like fun, but pretty much everything else there was just too expensive to justify.  We stopped at the Plan 9 record store, but going in there reminded me why I stopped going to the Plan 9 that used to be in Charlottesville – I’m just not cool enough.  The staff was cold and the selection of mainstream music was pretty weak.  Lots of indie and pseudo-indie stuff, though.

We had lunch at Mellow Mushroom, which was delicious, and set off for the museum.  We got there about 1.

Their Foucault pendulum is neat and we watched that for a while, but then we dove into the main exhibit area and had a really good time.  In the “unplugged” area we built an arch, then of course we destroyed it!


We took in the IMAX feature “Worst Weather in the Solar System” in The Dome.  The movie screen is a … dome.  It made me a bit dizzy, but my kid loved it.  Did you know it rains diamonds on Neptune?  How cool is that?

We ended up closing the museum down; after they kicked us out, we headed to my mom’s place about 45 minutes away and spent the night there.  Grandparent time is important!  The next morning, we headed home so she could spend some time with a friend of hers that’s moving overseas in a couple of months and then she had a sleepover planned (at the other kid’s house).

We got along great, with only a little friction here & there – like at the museum, when I wanted to move on but she wasn’t done with an exhibit yet.  Most of the time I let her linger, but a couple times I hustled her up.  I tried to let her lead and we had a good time.  I feel like it was excellent bonding time – neither of us had anybody else to pay attention to for the most part, and it allowed us each to focus on the other.

Next year she’s 13, and it won’t be long before she’s in high school, then driving, then (hopefully) off to college and the rest of her life.  I can quell this melancholy feeling inside me that days like Friday are going to be fewer and further between as she grows up.  In one sense, I’m happy for her to grow up and become her future self, but I’m also afraid of that exact thing taking place, because it means I’m losing my little girl.  She’s a fun kid most of the time, and while it’s getting a little tough lately, there’s more good days than bad.

Your kid growing up isn’t one of the things people tell you about when you’re having a baby.  They throw down all the projectile vomiting and horrific diaper stories, but they don’t tell you about how hard it is to watch them turn into … people.

summer book exchange #8: The Name of This Book Is

photo“This was one of those places in which you don’t want to make any embarrassing sounds. Forget sneezes and coughs – even the smallest, was-that-breakfast-or-lunch belch, or the softest, nobody-will-know-it’s-me fart, could be heard on the other side of the room.”

The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch and illustrated by Gilbert Ford, 2007

I’m not generally a fan of breaking the fourth wall, but Bosch makes that work in this fun little book. It’s a good thing, too, because you’re never really sure if he (or she) is telling you a story – or telling you about a story. Because he (I’m going to go with he, simply because it saves keystrokes in the long run) sticks to it so thoroughly through this adventure, it works.

I imagine the breaking-the-fourth-wall mechanism in this book is a bit more fun for kids (say, under 14) than it is for adults. Bosch does it almost conspiratorially, as if he’s letting you in on some deep, dark secret, and it is a lot of fun.

The main character in the story is Cassandra (Cass), a quirky and misunderstood girl of indeterminate age – I put her between 10 and 12. Her sidekick is Max-Ernest, a little boy her age who is mixed up and unusual due to the fact that his parents are seriously messed up. They’ve poured all their failures into him, and it shows. Think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, only less arrogant (a LOT less arrogant).

They’re reluctant friends at first – collaborators is all they’re willing to concede. By the end, they’ve saved each others’ lives and rescued somebody and defeated the villains. I think at that point, it’s safe to call them friends.

Cass has adults in her life that matter to her; her mother, of course; a pair of grandfathers called Larry and Wayne, neither of which is actually her grandfather and I’m assuming they’re gay simply by how they interact with each other, although Bosch never comes right out and says it; and Mrs. Johnson, her school principal, who is a solid – if disbelieving – guide in Cass’ life.

The plot centers around a magician who has disappeared and some special items from his house that find their way into Cassandra’s hands …er, backpack. It’s a clean, rollicking story without a lot of excess. Up until the final third of the book, everything clicks neatly into place and there’s no sense that Bosch is setting the reader up for a sequel. That changes at the end of the book, when he introduces a deus ex machina character (Owen) and we learn more about “the Secret” and the villains, Ms. Morvais and Dr. L.

There’s no sex in this story – they’re little kids, after all – but there is some violence (peril, really) and the implied deaths of some of the villains’ cronies. It’s filled with silly asides from the author and plenty of fart jokes (which I totally appreciated).  As you can expect with a book aimed at under-14s, everything wraps up pretty nicely at the end, and it’s a fun, satisfying read.  One of the best youth mysteries I’ve read since Encyclopedia Brown, and it’s nice to see that the main character and problem-solver is a girl.

My daughter (who is now 12) gave me this to read; in return, I gave her Fahrenheit 451.

summer book exchange #7: How To Be a Woman

I am not, nor have I ever been a woman. I have, however, known many women, slept with a few, married one and fathered two.

Until I read this book, I don’t think I ever really knew anything about what it takes (or means) to be a woman. After reading it, I probably don’t KNOW – but now I have a bit of a clue.

photo 3How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran (2011)

This is, without doubt, a feminist manifesto and Moran’s test to determine if one is a feminist is quite simple.

“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist,” she writes. “Put your hand in your underpants. A) Do you have a vagina? and B) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why the hell would Wes read a feminist manifesto?” and “Once he read it, why on earth would he write a review of it? After all, he said he was only going to review the Summer Book Exchange books he LIKED.”

Liked it? LOVED IT. This is hands down the funniest nonfiction book I have ever read in my life. Ever. Nonfiction. Period. I started laughing – and learning – on page 1 of chapter 1 and while the laughing peters out late in the book, Moran’s style is so easy, so free and so utterly funny that you can’t help turn the page to see what kind of mischief she’s going to get herself into on the next page.

Her approach to feminism is what appeals to me. It’s not about separating the sexes, it’s about bringing them together.

“Don’t call it sexism. Call it ‘manners’ instead. When a woman blinks a little, shakes her head like Columbo and says, ‘I’m sorry, but that sounded a little…uncivil,’ a man is apt to apologize, because even the most rampant bigot on earth has no defense against a charge of simply being rude.”

In Chapter 1, 13-year-old Moran gets her first period and explores the relationship she has with her sister Caz and her mother. We meet most of her family – all 7 or 8 of her siblings and her clearly tired parents. Neither her mother nor her father are particularly helpful (or useful) in her journey to learning how to be a woman, but we certainly can’t hold that against them. They’re also fat, as is Moran, something which she reminds us of quite often.

Chapters 1 (I Start Bleeding!) to 14 (Role Models and What We Do with Them) are funny and poignant, and it’s easy to follow Moran’s feminist narrative throughout. I feel it’s important to note that she’s not a man-hating feminist – she says so herself – but that’s because she feels a man-hater isn’t a feminist, really, and needs to figure out better their place in the world. The funny comes to a screeching, crushing halt in Chapter 15, when she discusses her abortion and the final chapter isn’t really a barrel of laughs, either, though it is a reprieve from the rather loaded topic of abortion. If I’d stopped reading after chapter 14, I’d give this book 5 stars easy. As it is, I have to pull back to 4.75, because even though I think abortion needs to be discussed more openly in our society, it really is a total bummer to do so and the previous chapters are so funny that it’s a real left turn as far as the book goes.

I think the abortion chapter is so …abrupt… simply because Moran has brought us along so merrily and willingly in her free flowing style that when it stops (and it DOES stop), it’s just hard to see it as a cohesive total. The last two chapters of the book stand out, stand apart from the rest of the material, so much so that they give the last quarter of the book a disjointed feel. This doesn’t mean they’re not well written, because they are. For example:

“I cannot understand antiabortion arguments that center on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain, and lifelong, grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.” (author’s emphasis)

Not even George Carlin could have said it better, and it’s a sentiment that somehow has more power coming from a woman. Perhaps that’s because women are the source of life, sanctified or not.

Humor aside, the two best chapters in the book are the companion chapters 12 and 13 – Why You Should Have Children and Why You Shouldn’t Have Children. Moran’s insight into the human condition – for men AND women – is so acute and powerful that these two chapters alone make the book worth reading.

The most powerful chapter, however, is 14: Role Models and What We Do with Them. In this chapter, Moran viscerally excoriates somebody called Katie Price, of whom I had no knowledge until I read this book. (I had to google her to get a basic rundown.) Moran holds Price up as the worst kind of woman, or at least the worst kind of feminist – one who has turned her looks and her marriages into her “career.” She contrasts Price’s existence with that of Lady Gaga, who – if you’ve been paying attention to the book up to this point – is clearly the best kind of feminist, male OR female. Not being a fan of Gaga’s music, I developed some respect for her just reading about some of the things she’s done and the way she expresses herself. It’s an eye-opening part of the book for a lot of reasons.

The joy and laughter in reading the books comes from Moran examining her own life and describing how it all comes together even while it’s falling apart. Her description of the 48-hour labor leading up to the C-section that brought her older daughter into the world is horrifying, but you barely have time to be horrified because you’re so busy wiping tears off your cheeks because you’re laughing so hard you can hardly breathe.

Yes, that’s right, I just said her horrifying description of birth is side-splittingly funny. This is how Moran reaches you – man or woman, child or adult (not that I’m recommending children read this book). She lays open the human condition so well that you follow her right down the rabbit hole, holding on for dear life, and the book is so good you’re compelled to ride the wagon all the way to the bottom.

I highly recommend this book – for adults. Maybe older teens if they’re very mature. There’s a lot of frank discussion of risky behavior, including smoking (heavily), drinking (heavily), and sex (um… heavily?) of all sorts and Moran’s vocabulary is quite vulgar (of which I heartily approve). I think men especially could benefit from reading this book – it may not turn a man into a feminist, but it will certainly allow a man to gain a little insight into how many women are affected by bras, menstruation and bridesmaid’s dresses.

summer book exchange #6: Wolf Hall

I love telling the story of Henry VIII discarding his first two wives. It’s salacious and full of intrigue, two of the best aspects of any story. Plus lots of dirty stuff.

Having said that, I’ve never been much of a fan of historical fiction. Maybe “not a fan” is too strong – “not able to get into” is maybe more accurate, because it snaps me out of the story when the author takes …liberties… with the material.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009)

photoI’ll say this right off the top – Mantel is a fantastic writer and her style is engaging and smooth. Even if I hadn’t known anything about Henry, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell going into this book, it wouldn’t have mattered, because Mantel brings them all to life quite effectively.

It’s clear that the book is researched in depth; Mantel doesn’t screw up the little stuff and she just flat out gets the details correct. That goes a long way towards suspending belief long enough to enjoy the story – even though I knew how it was going to end.

(Well – sort of. This is book 1 of a trilogy. I know how book 3 will end.)

The cool thing about this book is that it doesn’t focus on King Henry and his new (second) bride, Anne Boleyn. This book is all about the people in the background, the people dealing with Henry’s tumultuous decision.

There’s a bit of projection of modern values backwards onto historical figures, but I suppose that can’t be helped. In reality, the only truly sympathetic character in the story of Henry VIII was Thomas More, and they chopped his head off. Mantel has to create a hero or the story isn’t compelling. Cromwell becomes that compelling figure at the center of the narrative, and we’re drawn into his rise from humble beginnings to the lofty heights of court.

I probably won’t delve into the sequels because this isn’t the kind of genre I get into, but this was a very good book.

the good news is – the trouble in the middle east is not really our fault

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the USA today as Iraqi militants (who, if they were on our side, we would call freedom fighters) attempt to wrest control of the nation from a government set up and supported by the US and numerous other western nations.

No matter what any of us do, they’ll win. Eventually. The good news is, though, that it’s not our fault. Really. Well, mostly not our fault. (That statement is not meant to denigrate the sacrifices of over 4,000 American lives in the attempt to bring peace to that region.)

What we call the Middle East is a mixture of African and Asian territory populated by a Muslim (religion) and Arabic (ethnicity) majority. Most of it is hot, difficult territory to live in, but they have a shitload of oil under their deserts, so it is, in fact, a very important place in the disposition of the entire world.

The Middle East is also the cradle of civilization – it’s where populations first developed the key characteristics of what we call civilization – and people have been fighting over it ever since the first walls went up around the first cities there.

The Middle East claims a lot of firsts – the cultivation of wheat, domestication of goats and cows, Catal Hyuk (1st major human “city”), invention of pottery, irrigation and agriculture, the wheel, writing, and much, much more. After the Romans conquered the region, though, it’s pretty much a slide right into the strife of the modern era.

The Persians conquered the region in the 500s BC. Alexander the Great (Macedonian/Greek) conquered Persia (and thus the Middle East) in the late 300s BC. The Romans took over the region gradually, starting with the defeat and destruction of the Carthaginian Empire in the mid-100s BC. The Roman emperor Hadrian named in Syria Palestina, and Emperor Diocletian turned the region into a more-or-less self-governing territory (under his control, of course), when he split the Empire into four pieces. Diocletian gave over control of Italy, Spain and most of North Africa to Maximilian, France and Britain to Constantine, and Greece and Southeastern Europe to Galerius. He kept for himself Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, and what we now call Turkey (they called part of it Asiana and the other part Pontica).

Christianity was growing when Diocletian partitioned the Empire, and that new religion helped destroy the Romans. Note that I say “helped” and not “caused,” simply because there were many reasons the Roman Empire went into decline and Christianity was but one aspect of the trouble facing the collapsing Romans.

Islam came along in the 7th century AD, changing everything in the region. The previously polytheistic Arabs rallied behind Muhammad and created a new Arabic/Islamic Empire that conquered all of North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Spain. The only things that kept the Muslims out of Europe were the Pyrenees Mountains (separating Spain and France) and the presence of massive, aggressive Asian tribes north of Turkey.

Real trouble between (Middle) East and West began in 1095 AD, when the Roman Catholic Pope Urban II decided that, after 450+ years of the Muslims controlling Jerusalem, it was time for the Christians of Europe to “reclaim” the “holy land.” The Europeans won that first war, conquering Jerusalem in 1099, but the Arab Empire retaliated, leading to another eight “sanctioned” Crusades and about another eight “unofficial” Crusades, many of which were launched by the Catholic Church against other Europeans. You probably never heard of any of them, except maybe for the Albigensian Crusade, which wiped out the last remnants (in France) of the Christian sect called Catharism.

Mostly, though, the Crusades were about the Catholic armies of Europe trying to wrest control of the Middle East from the Muslim armies of the Arabic Empire. Over 400 years of warfare, the result of which was that the Arabs continued to control the Middle East.

Let’s see how that panned out, then: 1095: Arabs in control of the Middle East. MANY YEARS OF WARFARE. 1456: Arabs in control of the Middle East. I wonder how many people died to accomplish that goal.

Note that nobody knew anything about the copious stores of oil at that time.

Islam underwent many changes in its formative years, especially the years after Muhammad died. There was a big fight over who would be the caliph, the leader of Islam, and that fight led to a schism (a split in a religion) that left us with Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. It wasn’t terribly unlike the schism in the Catholic Church we call the Reformation, the one that gave us Catholicism vs. Protestantism, in the 16th century.

Anyway, the Seljuk Turks dominated the region for a time. They subjugated the Arabs and controlled most of (then later just parts of) the Middle East into the 1300s. The Ottoman Turks started their rise to power at the end of the 1200s and dominated the region until the end of World War I in 1918.

After WWI is when, as they say, that shit got real.

(FOR MORE AND AWESOME INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC – I.E. THE MIDDLE EAST IN WWI, READ “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by Scott Anderson. FANTASTIC BOOK!)

See, the Ottomans were on the losing side in the Great War, and along with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they got smacked down in the peace. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dismantled by the Allies. By “Allies,” I mean England and France, because the US packed their shit up and went home when the fighting was over, leaving President Woodrow Wilson with his dick in his hand at the peace talks in 1919.

In 1917, the British gave permission to the Zionist “nation” (i.e. Jews all over the world) to rebuild a homeland in Palestine, which had been controlled by the Ottomans and was now under the control of England (more or less). England and France occupied the territory in 1918, and France started stirring shit up immediately, going to war with the locals in Syria in 1919. The next four years saw a near-constant state of warfare in the region as Turkey tried to establish hegemony, upsetting many British and French plans.

(Obviously, by now, everybody was talking about oil.)

The thing is, France had put no effort at all into the Middle East during WWI, they had just suffered so much in Europe that they felt they were entitled to some spoils – that is, the Ottomans lost, so France deserved territory. They didn’t give a shit about the people already living there, the effort the British (who had their own agenda anyway) put into keeping the Arabs and Turks fighting each other to keep the Ottoman Empire as much on the margins of the war as possible.

France took over Syria and Lebanon; Britain took over Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) and Palestine and exerted a lot of influence, if not outright control, over Persia (later renamed Iran). Saudi Arabia emerged in 1932 when Arabs living in Hejaz and Nejd, pissed at the Allies and the Turks, decided they’d had enough of being pushed around and treated poorly and forcefully established their own nation. The other parts of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East became Yemen and the various Arab states of the Persian Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar & UAE).

It was in the wake of this partition that the modern concept of the Middle East emerged. As the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Islam, these new nations were also steeped in their own local history and majority Muslim as well, with pockets of Christians and a (very) few Jews. The problem (among many) was that these regions had been ruled by a distant, disinterested empire for so long that they had no tradition of self-government. As they struggled to learn how to govern themselves, they had France, England, Germany, and later the USA pushing and prodding them this way and that – manipulations both subtle and overt. They never really had a chance to get themselves peacefully established.

PLUS, when England and France marched in and drew the lines in the sand that became these international boundaries, they did so WITH ABSOLUTELY NO CONSIDERATION OF RELIGIOUS OR ETHNIC DIVISIONS in the local population. They brought their Western arrogance along with their cartographers and geologists and divided up the region according to their own selfish agendas. The fledgling League of Nations – a precursor to the nearly useless United Nations – was complicit in this partition, squandering the opportunity to create a truly beneficial international institution and doing what the more powerful (or at least more influential) nations of the world wanted. The needs and desires of the less powerful nations of the world were completely ignored and France was at the forefront of this bullying behavior.

The British weren’t much better about it, but at least the Brits had skin in the fight. France kept crying about how bad they had it during WWI, completely ignoring the FACT that they had NO military forces in the region and REFUSED to support the Arab effort against the Turkish armies in the sand. Between the end of WWI (1918) and the beginning of WWII (1939), there were seven major rebellions or uprisings against the colonial rule of England and France.

Italy and then Germany invaded the region in the late 1930s, which led to England and the USA re-invading and re-conquering the region as part of World War II.

After WWII ended, the Cold War started, and – while we haven’t talked at all about religion up to this point – that’s when the USA and USSR started heavily meddling in Middle Eastern affairs in order to exert some control over the world’s oil supply. Between the USA and the USSR vying for influence (and oil) in the Middle East, governments were propped up and undermined so many times that just trying to keep it all straight will make you dizzy. The new nation of Israel – created by taking land away from the Arab population in Palestine – fought several wars to defend and expand its borders. The Persian Gulf states gained their independence gradually, with the last of them doing so in the early 1970s.

Now, the desire of these people to rule themselves notwithstanding, a multitude of European nations have been meddling in the affairs of the Middle Eastern people since the fucking 11th century – a THOUSAND years, people. A THOUSAND YEARS. The machinations of the United States and Russia are merely the latest drops in the bucket.


19 dead so far this year in school shootings

Including the murderer and the murdered at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, OR yesterday, 19 grade school and colleges students have died in what we now so casually call “school shootings” in 2014.

It’s barely June.  19 people.

Stay with me, this isn’t going where you think it’s going.

A lot of people are going to say that guns are the problem. The majority of guns used in these incidents have been legally-obtained weapons, either purchased legally by the shooter (such as the shotgun-toting Aaron Ybarra & stabber/shooter Elliot Rodger) or taken without permission from people who bought them legally.

Saying the problem is guns is easy, but it’s only part of the problem. There are so many guns in the United States that they’re simply everywhere. If you don’t own a gun yourself, you know somebody that has one – at least one. Depending on where you are right now, you might be sitting next to somebody who has a gun on them right now. The vast majority of guns are owned by law-abiding citizens that could never imagine using them in any capacity other than to defend themselves, their family or their property.

The only way to make guns NOT a part of this problem is to remove them from the equation. ALL of them.  Nobody but the military & the police have guns and that becomes the new reality of the United States of America.

That isn’t going to happen. Period.  It’s time, therefore, to stop talking about guns as being the problem.  Gun ownership laws (aka gun control laws) aren’t going to change enough to remove guns from the hands of the vast majority of citizens of the USA.

What else can we point to?  Bullying?

Maybe.  Maybe bullying is a problem.  That cowardly little asshole Elliot Rodger felt bullied by other kids and rejected by women.  Those kids that shot up Columbine High School felt bullied and mistreated.  Bullying has been going on since school started and while it’s always been a shitty thing, millions of people have dealt with it in other ways than shooting up their classmates. Are we not teaching coping strategies to our children?  Are we telling our children, “Oh, well, if that football player picks on you, it’s OK to shoot him in the face, then empty your gun into the pep rally attendees in the gymnasium.”

Of course we’re not.  Bullying, then, isn’t the problem.  (Don’t get me wrong – it’s A problem, but blaming these school shootings on bullying is what I’m talking about.)

I’m going to go out on a limb here, then, and say that guns and bullies aren’t causing these school shootings.

The media is at fault.

NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, even NPR – they are the reason we’re seeing an increase in the frequency of these school shootings.

Every time one of these cowardly little assholes takes an assault rifle into an elementary school and blows away a bunch of kids, these “reporters” and “anchors” and “experts” spend unimaginably countless hours on TV and radio dissecting every aspect of his personality, digging down into his psyche, his motivations, his difficult childhood – any aspect of the shooter’s life that gets them a little more air time, a few more ratings points.

What it turns into is a fetish, a cult that worships these little fucking assholes who think shooting their classmates is going to get them attention. Why do they think this? BECAUSE IT’S TRUE.

It used to be for the average American to get on TV, they had to streak across the 50-yard line during a nationally-televised college football game.  That was a one-and-done event, a laugh on the news that night.  Now you too can get talked about on TV for endless hours simply by buying a gun (legally) and using it to attract the media.  If you shoot up a school – you don’t even have to kill anybody – then the talking heads on TV and radio will discuss your life in minute detail for days, weeks, even months.  They’ll talk about you now. They’ll talk about you when your trial comes up.  They’ll talk about you in a year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.

(Think they’ll forget about it in 20 years?  Guess what – it’s the 20th anniversary of the murders OJ Simpson was acquitted for. Guess what they’re talking about on TV this week?)

Shooting up a school has become the newest, best way to achieve immortality in our corrupted culture. There is no more sure way to achieve the goal of people paying attention to you than to shoot up a school, movie theater, fast-food restaurant, etc. You’ll be on the “news” and achieve immortality.

The problem, then, is us.  That’s right – you and me and every other American. Not the guns, not the bullying, not the misogyny alone – but all of it.  USA! USA! USA! We’ve done this to ourselves by creating a culture that glorifies “media,” that thrives on TV shows like America’s Got Talent and American Idol.  Our society, our empire, is crumbling around us every day and we’re so oblivious to it that the only way to get any attention now is to get on TV – and what surer way to get on TV is there than to kill classmates?  It’s a guaranteed way to get your picture into every American household, to make your name a household conversation piece, to get you mentioned on every channel, station and newspaper in the country.

The solution, then, is for the media to simply stop talking about these events in such morbid depth.

Like eliminating the guns, though, that’s never going to happen.  As a society, we have no self-control, and we simply won’t be able to do it.  Ever.

We live in the country we’ve built, and we deserve exactly what we’ve created for ourselves.


an ode to motorcycles

This post discusses certain behavior that may or may not be legal in all 50 states. I do not advocate breaking (or even bending) the laws of your state, county or municipality.


There really isn’t anything you can do in a car that you can’t do on a motorcycle. Sure, there’s some stuff you can do in a truck that you can’t do on a bike, but who wants to put a new refrigerator on the back of even a large motorcycle?

Whether you ride a 125cc dirt bike or a behemoth Gold Wing, you’re part of the brotherhood (even if you’re a sister!).  We smile, we wave, we chat each other up at gas stops.  No matter how clapped-out that guy’s ride is, we’ll always say, “Hey, nice bike” and ask some questions about it.

On Sunday, I got grilled by a 10-year-old about just about anything you could ever wonder about motorcycles. It was great fun, and I even managed to work in a suggestion to him and his father that he take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse.

I’m a giant proponent of ATGATT – All The Gear All The Time – but like most people, I’ve been known to head off to the store wearing, for me, what passes for the basics – boots, jeans, jacket, gloves and helmet. The few times in my life I’ve ridden without a jacket on, I’ve felt so uncomfortable it’s not even funny.

I don’t understand why people fight against laws that require helmet use.  This, to me, is the most critically stupid thing a motorcycle rider can do.  Frankly, I don’t understand why all riders don’t use full-face (or at least flip-front) helmets to start with.  The point of a helmet is twofold – 1) to prevent your brain from suffering catastrophic injury (which it does by slowing down the rate at which your brain bangs around inside your skull – as your skull deforms the EPS lining of the helmet, it decelerates your brain) and 2) to prevent skin, eye, mouth, nose, chin and penetrating damage done by objects external to the helmet like roads and guard rails.

There isn’t a half or even three-quarters helmet made anywhere in the world that will prevent your chin from scraping along the ground if you should be separated from your motorcycle at high speed.  I simply don’t understand why all motorcycle riders don’t recognize this.

Yes, a full-face helmet is warmer in the summer than a half helmet.  You know what else it does besides make your face & head hot?  It protects you from sunburn (provided your face shield blocks UV rays, which most of them do) and windburn.  It protects you from getting smacked in the face with bugs of all sorts (imagine getting your cheek splatted by a big ol’ butterfly or cricket).  It cuts down on noise, thus protecting your hearing (though you should not rely on your helmet alone to do this).  In the winter, your helmet helps your face and head stay warmer.  A full-face helmet keeps your whole head and face dry if you’re riding in rain, sleet or snow.  (Riding in sleet is just no fun, and it’s even worse if your face is being pelted with tiny, angry slivers of ice.)  If your full-face helmet is a bright color (yellow, orange, white, silver, etc.) it gives you a lot of real estate to be seen by car drivers.

You get the point.

Motorcycles are just plain fun, too.  I discovered in the past few days that both of my bikes will get up to about 90 mph in 3rd gear before the rev limiters kick in – which is impressive considering one of those bikes has a giant heavy sidecar hanging off it (and it had a passenger in it at the time).  One of my bikes gets 40+ miles per gallon – on a bad day!  When you’re out on a motorcycle, you’re more in touch with nature.  You can smell everything, see everything better, hear the sounds around you (that is, if your bike isn’t obnoxiously loud).

I think I might be rambling at this point, but I’m having fun. Not as much fun as I’d be having if I was out riding somewhere, but I’m supposed to be working, so the 10-minute break it took to write this counts as my union 15, right?

Ride. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

summer book exchange #5: Killing Mr. Griffin

It’s every kid’s fantasy, isn’t it? The school will burn down, or the teacher they hate will drop dead of a heart attack – and then everything will be OK.

Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan (1978, updated 2010)

photoThe first thing I have to say is this: while I understand that Duncan may think that updating the book to include references to cell phones and Google might make the book more “edgy” or “relevant,” I think doing so was pointless and an affront to the original story. There isn’t a teenager in the world that wouldn’t relate to this book as it was written in 1978.

You know, I just realized that out of the 6 books I’ve read so far this summer, a 15-year-old girl was the main character in 2 of them. That’s a disturbingly high percentage.

This is a decent book – it’s well written (good thing, too, since the target of the story – Mr. Griffin (actually, Brian Griffin, which I had to laugh at – you’d think if Duncan was going to update the story anyway, she’d change his first name so it didn’t make people think of the talking, smoking, alcoholic dog in Family Guy) is a high school English teacher. As a matter of fact, it’s probably better written than the story deserves.

It says right on the cover that Duncan also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, which I remember as being a decent, if predictable, movie. That did give me the impression that this might be a fairly predictable book, and that proved true. Of course, it could be that I felt it was predictable because I’ve read hundreds of mystery/thriller stories and there’s only so many tropes and cliches that you can put into one story.

There are a couple of twists, but nothing terribly stunning. The characters in the book are very straightforward – Susan, the lonely, mousy, bookish girl; David, the class president who is, of course, gorgeous; Jeff, the jock who does all the heavy lifting, including coming up with the idea at the core of the story; Mark, the brooding, moody weirdo; and Betsy, the effervescent cheerleader who goes along with anything. The adult characters, except for Mr. Griffin, are broadly stereotyped as well, even the ones the kids just talk about.  Mr. Griffin’s wife doesn’t believe anything the kids say, there’s an unsympathetic cop, Susan’s family is annoying but her parents think she can do no wrong, there’s an air headed hippie teacher, etc.

Duncan makes it hard to sympathize with Mr. Griffin, because even though she shows us that he cares about his students, he’s kind of an asshole. In reality, he’s my kind of asshole, and I see a lot of my own teaching philosophy in his efforts. (I guess I better start watching my back in the parking lot!) Here’s two examples of soliloquies from Mr. Griffin that mesh well with my attitude.

(Remember this book was first published in 1978 – it’s amazing how little things have changed in education since then. Of course, I haven’t read the original unupdated edition, so Duncan could well have added these things in 2010, but I doubt it.)

Griffin: “Many of the kids coming into my classes at the university are all but illiterate. You give them a page to read, and they can’t tell you what’s on it. Try teaching them the classics, and they can’t pronounce the words. Ask them to write something, and they can’t make complete sentences, much less spell anything over two syllables… By the time they’re in college, it’s gone too far. They’ve had twelve years without disciplined learning, and they don’t know how to apply themselves… They fall asleep in lectures because they expect to be entertained, not educated.”


Susan: “He said I was bright enough, but sloppy. That I messed myself up by not paying attention to details. He said that in his class an A meant ‘perfect,’ and that nobody in that class including me was doing perfect work, but that I was probably capable of it if I made the effort… He said that I was spoiled – that we were all spoiled – because we’re used to over-grading. That so few high school students take their work seriously that anybody who seems to be doing anything stands out, and teachers reward them with As even though they don’t deserve them, because they’re better than the others. And because they get As, they think they’re doing great, and they never even try to push themselves into doing the best work they can possibly do.”

Both of these passages hit close to home. I could have written either of them, and I’ve said the things in them on more occasions than I care to remember.

Although it sounds like I’m being overly negative, I did enjoy reading this book. It’s a great beach book – fast, light and fun to read. Even knowing what was going to happen didn’t stop me from wanting to see how Duncan wrapped it up – which, and this is one of my common critiques of books, she did in a rather hurried fashion. All the loose ends get tied up very quickly, with one exception involving David – and I won’t spoil that for you.

In the end, I’m not too worried about ending up like Mr. Griffin. For one, if any of my students jumped me, they’d have a rough time dragging my fat ass through a damp, muddy field to the secret, secluded place where they’ve decided I’ll be taught a lesson.

This book contains a little violence (obviously), but no graphic scenes at all. Everybody that dies in the book does so off-stage. There is no sex in the book at all. I would recommend this book to anybody 13 or older that has ever hated a teacher.

(I know exactly what book I’m going to send to the person who gave me this book. It may give her nightmares, but then again, it may open her mind to a great series of books. Muaaaahahahahaha!)

the Battle of Midway

Starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941, there wasn’t much for the US to hold on to as the war in the Pacific got going. Loss after loss stung US forces – and it wasn’t just the islands captured by the Japanese that hurt.

Ships. It was losing the ships that really hurt.

The Pacific Ocean is just unimaginably huge and once you get away from the continents that surround it (Asia, North & South America and Australia), it takes a really, really long time to get from one place to another. In an age when aircraft ranges were still relatively limited, it was ships that did the heavy lifting across the Pacific.

Every ship the US lost hurt the war effort. Even though the US had massive manufacturing capabilities in the early 1940s, it still took time to gear up for war.

The Japanese sank 7 ships when they attacked Pearl Harbor – 4 battleships – and damaged another 13. Not quite the crippling blow they’d hoped for, especially since the US was able to repair and return to service 6 of the sunken or damaged battleships.

What Pearl Harbor did, though, was force the US to face the new reality of sea combat – that it would be fought primarily with airplanes. The attack showed that the Japanese already had the skills it took to fight from the decks of the aircraft carriers; the US had some catching up to do. Japan’s heavy aircraft carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku – were purpose-built and technologically advanced ships, fully capable of supporting Japanese efforts in the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean.

Following Pearl Harbor, the first major fight between Japan and the US in the Pacific took place in the Coral Sea in May 1942. What started as a Japanese amphibious attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea, ended as more or less a draw. The Japanese sent two invasion forces against the area, supporting them with land- and sea-based aircraft.

The one US advantage lay in their high-tech (for 1942) communications equipment. The US was able to intercept Japanese radio transmissions and intercept and decode many other communications.

In the Battle of Coral Sea, the US lost the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and another, USS Yorktown, was heavily damaged. Considering the US had only two other carriers active in the Pacific at the time, USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, this was a staggering loss.

The Japanese lost a light carrier, Shoho, but definitely came out ahead on that trade. Shoho carried only 30 airplanes, while Lexington hauled three times that number. Yorktown, damaged though it was, raced (as fast as it could) back to Pearl Harbor, where it was dry-docked and returned to seaworthiness in just three days. Luckily for the US, the Japanese believed they sank Yorktown at Coral Sea.

US intelligence soon got word that the Japanese planned another audacious attack, this time directed at an island called Midway. The island itself was lightly defended, but if the Japanese captured it, they would have an airstrip much closer to Hawaii and, more importantly, a place to refuel and rearm their ships very close to the west coast of the US. The US simply could not allow Midway to fall into Japanese hands.

The Japanese sent a force against Midway that was only slightly smaller than the one sent to Pearl Harbor, and it included four of their veteran, top-of-the-line carriers – Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga and Soryu. The US was able to float just three carriers to oppose them – Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown.

The Japanese intended to draw the US carriers – remember, they thought the US only had two available, Enterprise and Hornet – into a trap and sink them. An attack on the Aleutian Islands was the bait, because surely the US couldn’t allow Japan to attack the North American continent without answering. The plan was to draw the US carriers towards Alaska, then have the main force sweep in behind them and destroy them.

Pretty solid plan, actually, and it would have worked if the US hadn’t broken the Japanese naval communications code and known that the primary target was Midway, not the Aleutians. US forces lay in wait northeast of Midway, sending out scout planes and waiting for the Japanese strike force to come within range.

The fighting started on 4 June 1942 and lasted through the 7th. The ships involved never fired at each other – all the combat was from aircraft! Needless to say, the Japanese trap was countered by the US, and while there was great loss of life on both sides, the US won a decisive victory against the Japanese.

The Japanese lost all four carriers they sent to Midway. Soryu was sunk outright by US dive bombers. Akagi, Hiryu and Kaga were all crippled by US planes; the Japanese sank all three carriers themselves rather than let them be captured by the US and possibly towed back to the USA.

Yorktown was severely damaged by Japanese planes, but wasn’t sunk until a few days later. It was being towed back to Pearl Harbor – ostensibly for another round of repairs – when it was caught, torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine.

The real victory for the US had three parts. First, it was a serious morale booster to the US and a vicious blow to the morale and pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The modern IJN had never been defeated so decisively – in fact, they had never really been defeated at all.

Second, while US manufacturing was just ramping up, Japanese manufacturing had peaked in the late 1930s and, due to embargoes, sanctions and now war, was beginning its decline. Japan simply lacked the resources to keep up with the US in any kind of race to build warships.

Finally, Japan lost hundreds – if not thousands – of seasoned, combat-proven sailors and, more importantly, pilots. It takes a long time to train a combat pilot, and even longer to teach him to find an aircraft carrier in the middle of the damn ocean and land on it. Japan’s population in 1940 was 71.9 million. US population the same year was 132.1 million – nearly twice that of Japan. Japan would not only never be able to replace those precious veterans numerically, but had a finite amount of time to train them. The US, on the other hand, enjoyed a nearly endless supply of future soldiers, sailors and airmen, and could conceivably take all the time they wanted training them.

The Battle of Midway, then, broke the back of the Japanese war effort in the Pacific. Though the fighting would rage on for another three years, the beginning of Japan’s end took place in June 1942.


summer book exchange #4: The Children’s Story

The Children’s Story … but not just for children, by James Clavell (1963)

photoIt’s been a long time since I read Shogun, but that has remained one of my favorite books. Clavell’s King Rat is also a fantastic book.

Both of those novels focus on the human condition, examining how people in situations largely out of their control and definitely outside their understanding learn to adapt, grow, thrive and survive.  I credit Shogun with initiating my fascination with Japanese culture – I don’t pretend to understand it deeply, but that book got me interested in Japan.  King Rat fed into my interest in military history, and it’s a chilling tale of how POWs interact with each other and their captors.

The Children’s Story is a completely different kind of Clavell story. For one, it’s a quick read – maybe 100 pages, if that, and it’s laid out in such a way that some pages have only a few sentences on them.

The premise is relatively simple – children are impressionable.  I mean, we all know that, but Clavell drives it home in a particularly heavy-handed way with a classroom full of children, first or second graders.  The entire book spans just 25 minutes at the beginning of their school day, but it’s a very challenging 25 minutes for them.

Their usual, familiar teacher is replaced abruptly by a young, pretty new teacher, who immediately starts grilling them on the Pledge of Allegiance.  She wants to know what the words mean and why the children repeat them.

The answer to that latter question, of course, is because they’ve been told to.  Naturally, they don’t understand the words ‘pledge’ or ‘allegiance.’  (Do you?)  She begins to break down their motivations, forcing the children to question even their parents.

This is an interesting book.  I don’t know if it’s a good book. It’s certainly a thought-provoking one, no doubt about that, but for somebody who clearly has the ability to write great stories, this one is overtly heavy-handed and unsubtle.  I’m not a big fan of being preached to, and that’s exactly what this book is doing.

One thing I find interesting is that it was published in 1963, a tumultuous year in US history.  Oswald assassinated JFK & was himself murdered, US involvement in Vietnam started escalating, the Supreme Court said public schools can’t require students to recite the Lord’s Prayer or Bible verses (but doesn’t say anything about the Pledge of Allegiance, which by then had “one nation, under God” in it), the hotline from DC to Moscow came into being, and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.  It was also just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the closest the US & USSR ever came to war.  In that year, you would have thought that the imagery of a teacher cutting up a US flag and giving it out to a room full of children would cause a huge stir, but I can’t find anything to that effect.

Perhaps this book isn’t as alarming or frightening in 2014 as it was before 9/11/2001. In the post-9/11 world, we all know how powerful words can be.  We all – or at least we all should – understand that what we teach our children dictates our future.  We do all know that, right?  It’s hard to change adults’ minds, but children are much more … malleable.  If you want your children to believe in God, you start teaching them about God.  If you want them to believe the US government is infallible, you teach them that America can do no wrong.  If you want them to hate capitalism, you teach them to be Marxists.  What they learn as children will stay with them throughout their lives.

Clavell certainly seems to understand that – even if you don’t.

Since the idea of the book came from Clavell’s 5-year-old daughter demanding a monetary reward for memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance, let’s take a look at it:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it to be bullshit from stem to stern.

Why should I pledge (promise) my allegiance (loyalty) to a flag?  A piece of cloth?  Yes, it’s a symbol, but as George Carlin once said, I like to leave symbols to the symbol-minded.

…and to the republic for which it stands – This is a little more substantial, but are the government and my fellow citizens so unsure of my loyalty to my country that they need me – as a child – to reinforce it with daily recitation?  This isn’t patriotism, it’s nationalism.

under God – The people of the USA are so screwed up over religious differences that our government has practically dragged to a standstill.  Christians, Jews, Muslims… all profess to be adherents of the one true religion, a religion of peace, yet all around the world, they still seek to kill each other and suppress each others’ religions.  This country is no different – just look at those “God hates fags” assholes whose imperious leader just died, or any other fervent believer that uses his beliefs to beat the rest of us about the head and neck and bully us into doing things his way because if we don’t, surely God will rain his wrath down upon us.

…indivisible – Well, since 1865, anyway.  Since the pledge was invented in 1892, I’ll let this one go.  Just remember, people, every empire that has ever existed has also collapsed and faded away.  Every. Single. One.

…with liberty and justice for all – Yeah, right.  Talk to our millions of prisoners and poor people about liberty and justice.  Liberty and justice come at a price – if you have the buy-in, you can have as much liberty and justice as you can afford.

Maybe what Clavell’s telling us, then, is that the Pledge of Allegiance is just bullshit we’re cramming down our kids’ throats so that they grow up questioning just a little less and believing just a little more. The more bullshit we feed our kids, the worse off they’re going to be in the future.  Instead of forcing them to memorize pointless promises, maybe we should be teaching them to think for themselves, give their loyalty to the entities that earn it, and make the world a better place.