Sunday, July 20, 2014

I'M NOT A REAL MAN, AND NEITHER ARE YOU

I’m going to reveal a secret about half the people on Planet Earth: men constantly measure their “manliness”, and compare themselves to other men. It’s crazy. Last weekend I went on a training mission with members of a famous, elite military unit, and members of a famous, elite law enforcement unit. The men from both groups were in awe of each other. The civilians were looking at the military guys and muttering, “They’re those famous guys they make movies about.” The military guys were looking at the civilians and muttering, “They’re those famous cops that Hollywood makes TV shows about.” To make matters worse, there were guys impressed with me, the fat, middle-aged balding guy with crooked teeth, because I was the radiation physics guy; so they decided that I’m some kind of nuclear genius who can do math (Compared to all of them? Yes. Compared to the people that I look up to[Yes, Dave Wesley, I’m referring to you], I’m an idiot). A poser. A fraud. Great. When we got home at 03:00 a.m., I know that the cops went back to their regular routine, where they’re jealous of the firemen (because women looooovvve firemen, and think they’re sexy), while the firemen are jealous of the cops. I could write a 2 page list of who thinks “those other guys” are more manly than they are (the ER docs are jealous of the firemen, who are jealous of the doctors, etc. etc. etc.). On the one hand, it’s a complete waste of time. On the other, it’s why the pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, and Hoover Dam were built. It’s why we have been to the moon, and the bottom of the ocean. This weekend, I rode a horse for the first time in my life. How was it? It was okay. Now I can say, “Been there, done that.” Actually, I took to it fairly quickly. Within 5 minutes I realized that as long as I had the right attitude, the horse would do what I said. The others in my party went wandering all over the fields, while their horses ignored their pleas, and did whatever they wanted. I think my horse realized that I’m Hungarian (my ancestors invaded Europe on horseback a thousand years ago), and got with the program. To my surprise, I was very confident while on this horse in a short amount of time. The reason that I was surprised is that that are things that I won’t do, because they scare the crap out of me. The long and the short of it is that I don’t like heights. I can’t ride a bicycle or motorcycle unless it is low-slung, and my feet can land flat on the ground. I realize that putting your foot flat onto the ground while you are going 20 or 60 miles an hour is dangerous, but I need that feeling. Want me to take an x-ray of somebody whose abdomen has been cut wide open by the surgeon? No problem. Want me to start an I.V. on a guy with HIV? No problem. Like a bunch of you guys reading this, I’ve had that weekend where I have gotten home from work, looked down, and wondered whose blood that was on my pants or tennis shoes. But don’t ask me to climb a ladder, or ride a zip line. Hell no, I won’t go. The rational part of me knows that zip line is 100% safe, and that I will fly from here, across the canyon, and land safely, over there without a scratch. I don’t care. It’s scary. Here’s the thing: the fact that I won’t bungee jump, go skydiving, or climb up a ladder makes me feel like I’m not a real man. I am a wimp. A chicken. A wus. I am not a real man. But then again, a bunch of the cops on the boat Sunday night got seasick, while the military guys and I stared at them in wonder. The water was pretty smooth, as far as we were concerned. So, if you’re a birder who goes out looking for shearwaters, take a minute to pat yourself on the shoulder: you’re tougher than those famous cops they make TV shows about.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

No Love for Will Smith

Okay, Mary Pols, listen up: "AFTER EARTH", THE MOVIE STARRING WILL SMITH AND HIS SON, JADEN, WAS AN EXCELLENT MOVIE. Got it, Mary? You're wrong. Before I returned it to the video store, I watched it a second time. If I wanted to, I could write a film review using the lingo that art critics use, and expound ad nauseum about why After Earth is a good movie, but I won't torture my readers with the pretentious, artsy-fartsy gobbledygook (Sorry: vocabulary) that you people use. Instead, I am going to take the low road, and accuse you of being a man-hating female who-to misquote the 1988 classic-just don't understand. Yours isn't the only review to pan the movie, but the criticism is always the same: Oh, it's so stupid. It's about a father who pushes his son around. Blah blah blah. Clearly, you critics who hate this movie are either: (a) women, or (b) men who had a shitty relationship with your fathers. Well, that's just too effing bad. Not my problem. Well, it is my problem, because your inability to understand the power and importance of the father-son relationship has so biased you dingdongs against this movie, because you hate what you don't understand. Any father with a son who is 5 years old, 15 years old, or 25 years old, will love this movie. I undertsood it, despite my love-hate relationship with my step-father. My brother, who never had a mature relationship with his father (we had the same mom) would have thought that the movie was dumb. Of course, he would. Okay, now I'm going to indulge myself, and do a little bit of the artsy-fartsy film critic thing: After Earth is a universal story of the father-son relationship, in which the son struggles with the contradiction of asserting his own identity, breaking free free of his father, while earning his father's love and respect. It is a coming-of-age story with all of the elements of The Hero's Journey. Joseph Campbell would be proud of Will Smith. So, why didn't the movie make billions of dollars? Probably because : (a) most dads like me are raising children, on a budget, and rent movies more often than we go to the movie theater (b) teenagers, who are supposed to be the big spenders (of their parents'money) in movie theaters aren't going to be interested in a story like this, because they are too busy texting and tweeting each other (during the movie, while sitting next to each other) about how stupid their parents are. Well, duh.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Wimps

My 8 year-old is on a basketball team, this summer.  For some strange reason, that kid of mine likes basketball.  He never ceases to amaze me.  I have no idea where or how this basketball thing started with him.  Originally, I was the team coach, but through some theological miracle that may yet cause me to renounce atheism, a guy signed up his kid, then confessed that he is a high school coach. 
Needless to say, our team is doing very well.

One thing Coach Al says is that these kids are only 7 and 8 years old, and we need to chill out, and not push them.  He says that if we try to make these little guys into serious athletes, they'll be burned out by the time they get to high school, and lose all interest in sports.  I really like him.  The more I see him interact with the boys, the more impressed I am with him.
So my son fell tonight, during practice, and hasn't stopped crying, since.  I wanna kill him.
Here's the thing: I think he's big a momma's boy.  A baby.  A wimp. 
The problem with that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is that when I look at him, I see myself at that age, and shudder.
I was a big baby.  I was a cry baby.  I was the lamest, most unathletic kid in San Pedro.  My son already has several advantages, and is way ahead of me: He already knows how to swim, and he learned how to ride a bike this summer.
Here's the deal: when I was 6 years old, I took swimming lessons, and caught a cold.  That turned into pneumonia, and next thing you know, I'm in an oxygen tent with a fever of 106F, in a coma, and the doctors tell my mom that I'm going to die.
After that, my mom became the definition of a Jewish mother.  The term "Jewish mother" should be changed to "Eastern European mother", since my mom was Catholic, but you get the idea.  My mom never let me have a bike or a skateboard (I would get hit by a car, and die).
I made up for my childhood enslavement when I left the house: I taught myself how to swim one summer in a friend's pool.  Years later, I got into SCUBA diving.  When I was 30 I bought my first bicycle, walked it over to an empty parking lot, and refused to go home until I could ride it, and not fall off.
This whole rebellion against my mother's smothering is why I joined the Army, but let's not go there.
Anyways, so I've got this kid, and I don't want him to be that wimpy kid who gets his ass kicked in the junior high school locker room, like I did.  I want him to be a real man (whatever that means). 
So, I have no idea if I did the right thing, tonight, or not: I made him get up, and keep running the drills with the rest of the boys.  I didn't yell at him like some pyscho Marine Corps drill instructor.  I looked him over, and clinically evaluated him, and once I determined tht he was okay, I made him get back in there.
If you look at him, he didn't even get scraped, or break skin.  His wrist probably does hurt.  But hey, what if I'm one of these idiot dads who doesn't realize his kid has a broken bone.  I have x-rayed a lot of those kids: The dad stares at me with wide eyes and asks incredulously, "It's BROKEN???" while I glare angrily at him.
Like Vinnie Barbarino used to shout, "I'm soooo confused!"

Monday, June 17, 2013

More bang for your buck

I just read two books about firearms by two guys who could have shared a beer, and gotten along famously, despite having very different political views.
The Gun, by C.J. Chivers isn't merely a history of the AK-47.  It's a history of Stalin's madness, Soviet bureaucracy, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution,  the Cold War, African massacres, and bureaucratic incompetence.  Even if you don't care about guns, this book is a good read.  Ostensibly, this book is a history of the AK-47, but the M-16 is discussed at length.

Former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was working on American Gun when he was murdered by a friend he took out for some firearms practice.  Chris was trying to help a veteran who has not done well since he came home, and got shot for his trouble.  Although William Doyle helped Chris' widow finish the book, you can hear Chris' voice, as you read the pages.  This book is a quick romp through American history.  The technical details of American firearms are cleverly woven into casual histories of various battles and skirmishes-starting with highly accurate flintlocks called American Long Guns or Kentucky Rifles-used during the American Revolution to shoot British army officers from enormous distances.  Chris takes the reader through the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. To his credit, he acknowledges the bravery, skill, and gunsmithing ability of America's foes over the last two centuries.
When he gets to the introduction of the M-16 in Vietnam, Chris breezes over the problems with the M-16 when it was first manufactured, and issued to front line combat troops.  Unlike Chivers-who extensively details and documents the high rate of failure and the horrific numbers of soldiers and marines whose M-16s either blew up in their face, or jammed after the first round-Chris side-skirts the extensive damage done to American troops by the general staff, and Colt's executives.  In plain English, American troops died unnecessarily and horribly.
I'm going to defend Chris on that last one, even though I'm not happy about it: when I was in, we were brainwashed into thinking that the M-16 was a technologically superior, awesome, precise, well-made piece of American technology, unlike that big, bulky, piece-of-crap AK-47.  I have no trouble believing that Chris was sold the same pile of zebra poop.  Interestingly, Chivers finishes The Gun with coverage of American troops being taught how to disassemble, clean, and re-assemble an AK-47, in an exercise titled "Just in Case". 
Thank God.
Chris Klye does, however, detail the extensive work done over the decades to update and improve the M-16-something that Chivers should have covered in more detail.  Hey, it only took the American military-industrial complex 40 years to fix the M-16.
Much to my horror, the Fed is willing to sell you an original model M-16, without the forward bolt assist.  Holy crap, are you guys kidding?
Note the forward bolt assist a.k.a. "forward assist" on the M-16A1 (lower image).  Any military firearm that comes with a button you gotta push during a fire fight, to unstick your gun, is a scary proposition.
Read both books.  They overlap and complement each other perfectly.
 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

THE HARDEST JOB IN THE WORLD

I was at the Quakes minor league game (we wiped the floor with San Jose, 9 to 0), and a cop was wearing a t-shirt that said, "God invented cops, so that firemen could have heroes."
Okay, well let's not get into that perennial dick waving contest.  Truth be told, they both have the hardest job in the world.  Cops have to see the worst of human behavior, like parents who beat their own little boy to death, after burning him with cigarettes, while firemen have to do CPR on homeless people who haven't had a bath in 6 months. 
Usually, my group trains the cops in anti-terrorism stuff; but this week we trained the firemen.  We helped them with urban search and rescue, by setting up a scenario where there are multiple radioactive hot spots, while they search for, and rescue people after  major disaster e.g. an earthquake.

The main point of our being there was to make them comfortable with their radiation detection equipment, and to feel comfortable in a radioactive environment, while rescuing the severely wounded. They had student firefighters (I keep saying "firemen" but there were 3 female fire cadets) who lay inside various "collapsed structures", and the urban search and rescue guys practiced using snake cameras (fiber optic scopes) and cutting through thick, hardened concrete, to get to them. 
They also have a car from one of our local train wrecks.  Scary thought for the day: I have ridden to work on the car, above.  So, we didn't put any radioactive sources inside the train, because that shouldn't happen in real life (but you could have a patient who just had a scan at the hospital, and is still radioactive.  This is what caused the embarrassment in Chicago earlier this year.)
 

They said we could go inside Car 623. 
Okay.
I walked up to the door, and started to climb inside.  Vertigo instantly attacked, as soon as I was inside the train.  I couldn't believe it.  Apparently, the conflict between my eyeballs and my inner ear was too much.  It's really weird, and very real.  I think the 45 degree angle made it so hard.  If the car was on its side, or upside down, it would have been confusing, but not as hard as it was for us to try to walk through.  We couldn't walk the length of the car.  We had to grasp like drunkards at whatever we could, and climb back out.


Note to self: write a blog post about Japanese Americans and their public service.  Pretty amazing that after having their houses, businesses, and other property seized during World War II, Japanese Americans continued to buy into the American Dream, and serve the public. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

GOODBYE, MR. ZEBRA FINCH; YOU POOR BASTARD


A lot of people mistakenly believe that if you are a birder i.e. enjoy traipsing in the great outdoors, staring at birds with binoculars―perhaps even photographing them―that you also would like to have a pet bird. Not necessarily the case. A few years ago, a relative suddenly declared that she and her husband are moving Back East, and foisted her Zebra Finches on us. Didn't ask if we wanted to have the birds; just showed up at our kitchen door with an over-sized white metal cage with two equally white songbirds nervously fluttering around, inside.

Before I go on, a word about Zebra Finches: Somehow, Australia―along with Oceania to its north―became the point of origin for a multitude of those exotic birds that constitute a large part of the international pet trade. If you walk up to the average American or European and say the word "Tropical" they will picture a lush jungle in Africa, or South America. Obviously, the green jungles of these equatorial regions are where parrots come from.

Not really. Lots of parrot species come from areas with oak trees (Mexico to Colombia), or grasslands (Africa, Argentina, Australia). Same goes for other Australian birds like Zebra Finches, who, of course, are not parrots, but small, seed eating passerines. Zebra Finches also bear the distinction of being bred in large numbers for biological research. These laboratory Zebra Finches have been bred in captivity over and over again to the point where they have lost most of the coloration of their wild cousins, and along with our two birds, have become white ghosts with bright orange seed-crushing beaks, and a couple of black stripes on their faces. If you ever walk by a research building on a university campus, and wonder what that chirping, honking sound is coming from somewhere inside, chances are it's the sound of a couple hundred Zebra Finches, bleating with excitement at the idea of escaping the nerds in white lab coats who will eventually decapitate them, and slice their brains into microscope slides in order to trace some neuronal pathway. No such fate awaited our new, uninvited guests.

So, now we had an oversized cage in our living room. Great. One more piece of clutter. As it is, my wife and I have too much stuff, and our small house constantly looks like if we had just moved in, and hadn't decided where to put things, yet. So the Zebra Finches now lived in the same living room that held six large book cases, two vaccum cleaners (an old-fashioned Hoover held together with a bungee cord, and the new, bagless Hoover that is the first bagless vaccum cleaner that we actually kept, after taking back the Bissel and some other piece-of-crap bagless vacuum cleaner that didn't pick up the dog hair), one female Basset Hound (usually found snoring on her Costco doggy bed), one suicidal analog TV (the top of the screen is slowly degenerating into parallel white lines that will eventually invade the entire screen, at which point I will be forced to drive over to Best Buy, and get the biggest flat screen that I can afford), one desk top home PC, a Persian rug, a sofa, two bicycles (can't keep them on the patio: they will rust), a 1910 Singer sewing machine, and a bunch of Christmas tree decorations that my wife really needs to put back into the storage shed.

Well, okay, the sewing machine was the other uninvited guest. Apparently, it was owned by somebody's grandmother (We're not sure who this person was, or how we're related to her, so we can't throw it out. Ironically, the wood used to make this broken sewing machine came from the Singer Tract in Louisiana, where they chopped down an entire forest for the wood to make sewing machines―wiping out the last stronghold of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pushing it into extinction.

So, of course, we put the over-sized cage on top of the unwanted 1910 Singer, and over the course of time a pile of feather dust and seed shells began to accumulate on the floor, where it joined the dog hair.

Great.

I grew tired of the dust and spit-out seed shells, so one day I evicted the Zebra Finches. My wife would love to evict the dog, but the Basset Hound has telepathic powers, and knows exactly when she needs to pad up to you, nudge you with her wet, black nose, and work her magical eyebrows into a facial expression that says, "I love you, and I need you to love me, too."

So now the Zebra Finches lived on our patio. No problem for most of the year in southern California, where even at our house at the base of a 10,000 foot mountain, it only drops down to freezing temperatures 2 weeks a year. I figured that when we have our annual Christmas-to-New-Years period of freezing temperatures, I'll bring them back inside.

Then I realized something: They actually have freezing temperatures―and believe it or not, snow―in certain parts of Australia, so these hardy little guys can probably tolerate short periods of cold.

To liven up their otherwise boring lives (Imagine being locked in a cage for years with your spouse, unable to escape), I hung one of the hummingbird feeders right next to their cage, and fairly quickly the Zebras began to announce whenever an Anna's Hummingbird visited our patio.

Life was good. We sorta had our living room back, and the birds were fine "outdoors". One fine summer evening I came home from work, and after executing my husbandly duty of picking up the dog poop & hosing down the patio, I noticed that only one of the Zebra Finches was fluttering about in their usual panic induced by the presence of humans.

Mrs. Zebra Finch was dead.

Sorry, Mr. Zebra Finch, we're not getting you a new wife. You'll just have to live out your days as a lonely widower, conversing with the occasional hummingbird or goldfinch that stops by to visit. Maybe in the spring a Hooded Oriole or an Orange-crowned Warbler will stop by.

Now you'll know how I felt when I was divorced, and living alone.

Anyways, so summer turned into fall, and next thing you know, Santa brought the kids newer, more expensive video games, and the big freeze was colder and longer than usual. Mr. Zebra Finch did fine. I actually tried to keep him warm by offering him handfuls of lint from the clothes dryer, and a milk carton that I hoped he would use as a bird box. Zebra Finches must be nest weavers, because he insisted on staying in a used margarine container full of dryer lint, eschewing the warmth and shelter of the milk carton.

The freeze ended, leaving all the banana trees in our neighborhood dead, including the one in a pot on our patio. Hoping for the best, I supplemented the banana plant's nitrogen supply with the occasional dose of liquid urea, and kept watering it. I noticed last week that it has new green leaves climbing past the dead, brown leaves.

Excellent. Wounded, but not dead.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Mr. Zebra Finch.

I got home from work, last night, and was immediately informed that he was dead, dead, dead, at the bottom of the cage.

Ouch.

I threw myself at my wife's mercy, and confessed my sin: I hadn't checked his food supply in several days. I may have starved him to death. A real possibility in this weather. Small birds can survive the cold as long as they can get their hands (or beaks) onto enough calories to keep warm. Just ask your local Hoary Redpoll, or McKay's Bunting. I have no way of knowing for sure if that killed the bird, or it was just his time. He probably died of old age. If I really wanted to know, I could have taken his little corpse out of the cage, and palpated his breasts. If there was a sufficent layer of muscle and fat, then no, he didn't use up his fuel supplies, he just grew tired of living in Claremont.

I informed the wife that I was going to throw out the cage with the bird in it. Straight into the dumpster. No birdy funeral in the dirt of the patio, just gone, vanished, like an American spy in Moscow. Poof. Never existed. She said, "No, don't throw out the cage." Methinks the lady doth protest too much. The ugly truth is this: she can't stand our relative who foisted the bird and the sewing machine on us. Here's where it gets really weird: It turned out that the birds weren't even hers', but her ex-husband's, who she broke up with in a nasty divorce that amazingly didn't make the front page of People Magazine. I gasped, "Those were his birds?"

"Oh yeah, she hates birds. Always has. She's been afraid of them since she was a little kid. Some incident where a bird attacked her."

"Wait a second! We've been keeping her ex-husband's birds, even though she hates birds, and she curses the ground he walks on?"

"Yep."

Somebody shoot me.

Before I left for work, this morning, I stopped and fed Mr. Fish. I stared at him through the glass walls of his tank, and asked him to stay around for a while. Not answering, he non-committally tore a chunk out of a flake of fish food, as it floated by.

***

Side note: My daughter wants a turtle for her birthday. I said, "Yes."

Now my wife wants to kill me.

Monday, November 26, 2012

About the Pomona Terrorists

Below is an email that I wrote, today, to a reporter at the LA Times that I met one day at Starbucks:
==============================

Hi X,

You probably don't remember me. We met at the Starbucks in KoreaTown, while I was on my lunch break. I was the chubby, balding blond guy who works for the Health Department, inspecting hospital radiology departments.

Hey, look, I am really frustrated that none of your colleagues are interested in this topic. I realize that Mexico i.e. South America is your beat, but I think you have the wisdom to understand what I am trying to ask: why did the Pomona 3 self-radicalize?

I wrote a novel that I finished in 2009, and the usual New York publishers didn't bother to tell me they weren't interested, except for one genius who took the time to write me, and let me know that the plot was implausible, stupid, contrived, and anti-muslim. Well, guess what? The plot that the FBI exposed last week perfectly mirrors Amateur Hour: 3 young men in Claremont (Pomona, in real life) self-radicalize, one of them is ex-military, and train as terrorists.

X, your colleagues at the Times are asleep at the wheel. This is Pulitzer material: one of you could do an investigative report about how Catholic kids (I assume that 2 of them are Catholic) got lost in America in the gap between first-generation immigrants, and established Americans who feel at home, here. As an immigrant, myself, I understand the thought process of a lot of these guys. Despite having blond hair and blue eyes, and speaking English without an accent, I wasn't a real American, because I spoke in Hungarian with my parents, and I had a funny name.

This is good material, and it is highly relevant: If it was that easy for me to come up with a plot like that in Amateur Hour, do you think that this is the last time that this is going to happen? What are we as a society going to do about this? Do we spend money reading everybody's emails and FaceBook postings, and arresting the next batch of terrorists, or do we try to change the circumstances that lead to the type of thinking that leads to this?

I hope you can get one of your colleagues to think about this, and set off on the right track.

Tom