I was in the motor pool on September 11, 2001. Forward observer. My unit was on DRB-1 (Division Ready Brigade. Forgive me, paratroopers, if I remember any of this wrong), bags packed and ready to be wheels-up in two hours in the event of war. The dumbest officer I ever worked for drove up in a Humvee and very dramatically told me what had happened. He said:
“Come with me to the guard shack, they’re listening to it on the radio.” Trained in the leisurely art of media-driven readiness.
I said “Shouldn’t we be getting ready to deploy, sir?”
We got nervous. Our stomachs knotted up while we waited in our barracks for the word. We started hearing about the roads on post being blocked off, the post being closed, searches for bombs. We watched the TV. And we sat and sat and sat while we very definitely received no order to deploy. The greatest ramification for the 3rd Battalion of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment was that for several days it took off-post personnel 3 hours to get to work. Every car was being checked at the gate for bombs, underneath and in the engine bay. Ft. Bragg ground to a halt from the intensity of action.
I tottered off to Arizona a year or so later, training for a new job, and leaving the likelihood of combat almost certainly forever in my past. Say what you will – I was relieved to have gotten out alive, for all literal purposes. People I know did not. Few, thankfully, but enough. There was Jared, of course.
In 2008, the entire 82nd Airborne Divison was deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, erasing its distinction as the Army’s only unit with a Division Ready Brigade. Odd to think of the mighty 82nd as just another unit. They never will be, of course, no matter how hard Congress tries.
The dumb officer I mentioned up there inhabits my memory in one other infamous episode. After 30 July and August days in the desert of Ft. Irwin California, my RTO and I sat idle while all of the brigade’s After Action Reviews dragged on, wrapping up our rotation at the National Training Center. We were a COLT – Combat Observation Lasing Team – lugging around a giant device used for painting targets for smart munitions. The actual smart munitions are ridiculously cost prohibitive, so they were never actually used in training. The laser was just a very large and very expensive set of binoculars.
Over the course of that rotation, my RTO and I called more fire missions than the rest of the brigade combined. We went somewhat rogue, getting permission from our infantry platoon leader to seek out targets on our own. When we called in our location so that we could direct some fires onto enemy targets, the response from the Fire Direction Center was “What the hell are you doing all the way up there, COLT 1?” SSgt Monti was out there, too, I remember, and our Battalion Fire Support Officer joked later that he could never get through on the radio because Monti and I would not stop calling for fire. Those were good days.
The officer of infamy, who I will name only by the nickname I gave him – Captain Sand-in-my-rear – approached us as we leaned against our rucks, waiting to redeploy to Ft. Bragg. He showed us a nice, shiny coin with the wings of a full Colonel on it and told us: This came from the Brigade Commander, for the good work we did here at NTC, but specifically for the job you two did out there. Well done.” He then put the coin in his pocket and walked away. Asshole. I hope he doesn’t mention us at all when he tells of how he got it.
Those were good days, to be sure. But they were make believe. They were games and laughs, a steady flow of frustration, and a lot of physical distress. But none of it was real. People like Jared Monti never forget the purpose of all those games, and in the end he proved what it meant to him.
I like serendipity. This was one of our poems this morning, June 23rd:
by Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)
Joe yelled, “Happy New Year.” The cow yelled, “Happy Moo Year.” The ghost yelled, “Happy Boo Year.” The doctor yelled, “Happy Flu Year.” The penguin sneezed, “Happy Ah-choo Year.” The skunk yelled, “Happy Pee-yoo Year.” The owl hooted, “Happy Too-woo Year.” The cowboy yelled, “Happy Yahoo Year.” The trainman yelled, “Happy Choo-choo year.” The clock man yelled, “Happy Cuckoo Year.” The barefoot man yelled, “Happy Shoe Year.” The hungry man said, “Happy Chew Year.” There were more “Happy Ooo-Years” Than you ever heard At our New Year’s party… Last June twenty-third.
I also like rituals. They can turn banalities into monuments, which I suppose isn’t always healthy (Hello, #occupy). Making my bed is a ritual. Bed time dessert can be a ritual. If I have a late treat, I will not brush my teeth after because it ruins the ritual. Coffee, sweet coffee, is a ritual. I don’t pour a cuppa just so I can run around making breakfast and handing out vitamins and cleaning griddles and maybe, maybe drinking most of it before it’s cold. I wait until the kids are through with me so I can sit, pull my darling Alexa close to me, and sip my beans over a few keystrokes. Especially this morning, in the defunct Seattle June. It has given up on us again. Ritualistically: 56 degrees, rain clinging like a syrupy apology. I once wrote:
This is not the June of my fonder memories. Smells like November, if you ask me, and I am beginning to be a little suspicious that everyone is in on a big joke against me. Soon I am going to open a closet in search of another blanket to wrap around myself, and see the pile of real calendars that they have hidden from me, replaced by all of these versions with twelve pages that say June. You can get things over on people by assuming certain behaviors like “he won’t flip the calendar ahead a month.” If I did I would see June. Again. And then June again. I would probably roil in a sense of disaster for a moment, and then resolve to continue to play the dupe because I know that eventually, one of these Junes will look like the right thing, and I’ll be able to enjoy it with fascination instead of expectation. The rest of you will know it is coming, and so curse it when it falls short.
Today I read a comment from some disgruntled citizen in the neighborhood, obviously using a police forum about local crime rates to make sure he honors the ritual of meeting a climate change mention quota. He said “Every year, it gets hotter earlier…” Well, I wrote that piece of mine up there, lamenting the pattern of cold, rainy Junes, six years ago. Let’s go easy on the agenda smuggling, shall we?
My agenda is in the link below. Raise your hand if every. single. one. of your friends votes differently than you do. It’s intimidating, but it builds character. They may be safe, but I’m secure. The definitions of those words are important. When you look at them side by side you see how different they are:
Secure: fixed or fastened so as not to give way, become loose, or be lost.
Safe: protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.
“Protected from or not exposed.” Oof. If you have kids, make them secure, not safe. High schools and colleges today are being torn apart by kids raised to think that safety is more important, and teachers who feel the same way about their jobs. Good little employees, bad little citizens. But I digress. I don’t know why I put those definitions in there. I’ve seen what we (and the Supreme Court) do with definitions when they aren’t convenient. Wait a minute…
Definition: a statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.
I would look up ‘exact,’ but again, once we’ve demonstrated that definitions are subject to whimsy, it’s rabbit hole, futility, chants and protests, etc, in saecula saeculorum. There isn’t a sentence in existence that matters. Not that one, not this one, and not any of the sentences in my paper, linked below.
Today we wake up with no immediate obligations (I haven’t even made the bed yet, lawd), so I’m calling this the first day of Summer Break. A term that has been scoffed at and rightfully derided by full-time parents since Summer Break was invented. How three consecutive months without a reprieve from whining, bored, hungry, fighting children is a “break” I’ll never know. But that’s why we pack in the things: swimming lessons, soccer, various camps, a small vacation. A frenetic Summer awaits, but without those things it goes from frenetic to demonic, and we all suffer for it. Of course, I do know the complaints that are out there: what’s with the constant stimulation? Or is it supervision? My parents didn’t need someone else to raise their kids for them. Yes they did, you dolt. Sending you off with strangers is raising you. And you know that certainly I’ve had HuffPo tell me, via Facebook, via someone who ‘liked’ the article without explaining why, that our parents never would have done this. That when we were kids…summer…until the streetlights…the old rock quarry…ten cent malts from Wade down at the soda counter…stuff it, please. Yes, unfettered, unsupervised play is absolutely necessary, but those cherry Coke bottle lenses through which you are remembering your childhood are distorting things a bit. In any environment, parents assess the dangers and set the parameters, and weigh them against their interest in actually, actively guiding your development a little bit. Being kicked out of the house from sunup to sundown was not the prevailing characteristic of our grand, summery youth. Mom was not simply hanging out, perfect hair, elbow length rubber gloves and an S.O.S. pad, sending you out on a blissful, ten hour frolic through the neighborhood while she hummed her way through the dishes and a box of Zinfandel because WE WERE ALL SO MUCH TOUGHER, THEN. Nope. I keep my kids closer and manage their freedom a little more tightly not because I’m an insecure ninny, but because, well, you should read my neighborhood news source. Daily police callouts for gunshots, weekly attempted lurings of elementary students on their way to school, monthly flashing incidents, package theft season (it’s a thing), car prowl maps, etc. Granted, 75% of the seemingly unceasing school lockdowns are for MAN SPOTTED WITH A GUN that turned out to be a stick, so there is certainly a current of overprotection and overreaction going on. Also, West Seattle is large, and it is divided into neighborhoods like anywhere else, and the worst of things consistently happen in specific areas, but we’re not allowed to talk about that. Our immediate neighborhood stays pretty safe. Mostly because there are a lot of residents around all the time. Retired people, the odd (and I do mean odd) stay-at-home parent, lots of kids and barking dogs. This sort of active presence is a key component to staying safe. If anyone is casing our neighborhood, they’re putting it very low on the target list.
I held my breath a bit on celebrating the end of my school quarter, because I wanted the results of my Philosophy (Symbolic Logic) final. It was far and away the hardest class I took this quarter, and at finals time I had just over a 94% for the quarter. I had to do well enough to keep that above 93% if I was to get a 4.0. I scored 19/20, for a 95%, and my overall grade for the course is a 94.38% I’m still waiting for the grade on my English paper, but unless I seriously bombed it, I’ll be good to go. English definitely made me work the hardest, but PHIL120 taxed me more than a Prince John/Bernie Sanders tag team. I was up late again because of it, taking that 20 question final with a two hour time limit. I used less than half that time to finish it, then went back through and took it again just to be sure. Good thing, too, as it’s funny how quickly you can come to the wrong conclusions (he said quite intentionally, after the Orlando shooting). I changed two answers. Had I not done that, I would have gotten 17/20, which would have given me a 92.38%. Insufficient perfection.
Now it turns out I have almost 10 days until my summer quarter starts. But that doesn’t really matter because I’m already completely confused about this summer. It’s June. It’s maybe sixty degrees out there most of the time. I’m done with school but sort of not because I don’t really understand finals week; my daughter’s last day of second grade was today, except it was yesterday, except there was noon dismissal and a pool party; and my son’s (imma just say it) preschool graduation (seriously) just got canceled because the teacher has the Black Lung or something. But wait! It’s been rescheduled! Evidently there were parents who needed “closure.” On preschool. Graduation from babysitting. You’ll get your closure when they move out of the house, which isn’t likely to happen if you are having preschool graduation ceremonies that simply cannot be canceled. But hey, it’ll be a droll Monday with cupcakes, so I’m all in.
For now, to kick off Summer, I’ve told my charges that they cannot come upstairs until they clean the basement. The noises tell me that after over an hour down there, they have not cleaned anything. But they are having fun, and I don’t like to interrupt that. In a little while I will pay my obeisance to HuffPo and our tough as nails familial heritage by hanging twenty dollar bills out of their pockets and sending them on an unsupervised walk through Highland Park. But not until I go spend 40 minutes in the grocery store while leaving them in the car, LIKE MOM USED TO DO ALL THE TIME. I will make sure the windows are cracked a bit.
The eight year old girl came upstairs just now.
“Papa, it’s clean. That’s why I’m up here. All except The Boy (she calls him that, too). His room is a mess.”
Joy, here comes the boy. You’ll love this:
“Papa, I want you to go down now and expect it.”
“You mean inspectit.”
“Yeah, go expect it. But don’t put away the K’nex pieces that are out. I wanna use those.”
“Those are what I wanted you to clean up.”
“Yeah. Can I have my cookie now.”
“Hang on. Immago expe- inspect it first.”
“Yeah. I’ll just be sitting here on this stool until you come back.”
Expection complete. I’m really glad you could all share this moment with me. I walked downstairs, into the living room for a few turns, then into one bedroom, then the other. Before heading back upstairs I paused and hung my head a little, took a moment to collect myself, and called back some tears that were threatening to come through the breach. For literally the first time in my life with these children, amid all the hollering and crashing that was going on down there, they did a friggin’ awesome job in spite of – oh, let’s face it, because of – having no help from me.
So the house is clean (enough), the sun through the East window is warming the dog on the rug, and we’re all in our pajamas at 8:55 am, instead of being on the road to school. Breakfast has been had. The Girl just told Alexa to “play Wagon Wheel.” It’s time to drain the dregs from my Stanley coffee mug, and pull these kids so close to me that I can finally feel like I’m getting a break. Let’s go have us a Summer.
History final done. 98%. Philosophy tomorrow. Thanks for following along.
I’ll get up in the morning and, well, my calendar is suspiciously clear. Take the kids to school, have a donut. Something must be missing. My wife will tell me. With work, and fixing everyone else’s problems, she’s busier than an Arabic crossword puzzle, but she immediately knows everything that is happening always. She’s in bed upstairs right now, probably. Text exchange from a couple of hours ago:
“OK. Taking my history final. Downstairs with headphones on.”
“OK. I won’t bother you. Kids in bed?”
And yes, we capitalize and punctuate our text messages completely and properly. Honest. You probably don’t, and I don’t hate you for it, but come on. Think of the children. Speaking of the children – I have no idea why, but I wasn’t expecting her to come down and check on the kids. Of course she’s going to do that. She’s mom. I’m at a desk strewn with notes, headphones in, “Classical for Focus”playing, and she buzzes through. My immediate thought, which sidetracks me from my test just the tiniest bit, is “Oops. I hope the smell has cleared up.”
But you didn’t need to know that.
Kids are hell, you know? They never work right. I consulted a professional this morning about how to deal with a soulless, life-sucking gila monster of a five year old boy, and what did he do? He behaved. All friggin’ day. What a jerk. He’s in the room to my left, second door. Sleeping in June under the biggest down comforter you’ve ever seen. I absolutely never have any idea what the hell is going on with him. Strangest person I’ve ever met, by far. The Girl is behind the first door on the left. Always sleeps as close to falling off the edge of the bed as possible. She’s so indescribably normal that as long as she is around I will never, ever have to worry about feeling like the world is a messed up place. Trump is President! Islam is peaceful! There’s a meteor coming! Cars change the climate! WE’RE ALL GONNA – oh, hi sweetheart. Yeah, I do think a little cappuccino chip ice cream sounds nice right now. She’s Fonzie to me, giving a little thump to my jukebox whenever I need the song to change.
I used to talk about her quite a lot when I blogged in the past. Well, I always blogged in the present, it just happened a while back. Nearly four years ago I said this:
We laugh and we make light of injury, but we are honest, too, about unpleasant things when they come up. They come up rarely with a four year old. Most of them are still of her own making, and it is the unfortunate mark of mankind that she will eventually become collateral damage to the world’s unsavory appetites. She is still Eve, but she’s grasping the apple now, and using it to change the channel.
She’s inspiring. They all are. There’s this one, too:
I am trying to swing her from “gotsta” to “have to,” and little things like that. But I sincerely hope that when this exuberant and darling miscommunication goes away it is replaced by something as beguiling and dear. Whatever it is will be a surprise. It’s like our rain in that you don’t get to see it coming. One day the child is simply doing or saying something different, and you wonder if you can watch her the way you used to watch the sky for lightning, all vague and knowing that if you look too close, you’ll miss the flash.
And so many more. My poor Boy doesn’t have as many pages in the literary canon, but when he came along, things, as they say, got real. That Boy and I have been arm-in-arm, face-to-face, and fighting tooth-and-nail since I quit my job to stay home full time two and a half years ago. The misery he has wrought. I hate him. I honestly think that I am emotionally healthier for allowing myself to keep a little place inside me where I hate him. They say hardship shows you things about yourself, things you did not know, things you would not have known. The Army gave me some of that. Life in general has given me some, too. This boy has set a new standard. He has picked up the dust from the ground and made another me. The breath in my nostrils. A me that I am never without.
I’ve been blogging for a long time. Eight years, with some breaks in there. My first post was in May of 2008, just a month after our Girl was born. My first post:
To me, protesting is like being uncontrollably horny while being irreversibly unattractive. No matter how much effort you put in, the only satisfaction you get at the end of the day is from yourself.
Blogging is a little different from that. I get the satisfaction of writing. And, when all goes well, the satisfaction of a usually odd little cabal of friends and followers. I used to have a little mini-family on the computer, half a dozen or so people I had never met, tracking each other’s lives through our posts and comments. Two of them have been good enough to come here and comment, another I see on Facebook sometimes. Some of us occasionally were picked up and linked to by larger websites, and those were really cool times. There’s a hell of a joy when you go to a website that you consider something of an A-lister, and to see yourself quoted and linked there.
That won’t happen tomorrow. I’ll wake up with my calendar still empty, still menacing me with implications, and this post will be here. It’s just a crank of the shaft, a little something to get the pistons firing. Building the canon.
Last night I turned in my final paper for English, and my finger was hovering above that decisive mouse-click – ‘SUBMIT’ – as if hand and mousepad were like-charged electrons, just trying to keep the hell away from each other. It’s hard to be sure that you’re finished. And that’s the end of English 102. I have final exams left in History and Symbolic Logic, then a summer Biology class. Big wheel keep on turnin’.
You’re all well past this. You’ve been in the classrooms, done the cramming, fretted over the bibliographies, cursed the MLA/APA/Chicago tango, and had your futures in front of you. So it may strike you as a little droll, but how incredible this all is. Doing the work. Doing well. Being one of the good students. Heck, not even that, but merely being one of the students at all.In high school I was a non-student. A class-skipping idiot with no forward movement, embarrassed to show my face in class, afraid to go home. Every assignment intimidated me, because I already knew I wouldn’t try to do it. I know what it is like to be lazy, and I don’t think that I was that. It was worse. I was perniciously unproductive. Pointedly, actively opposed to doing what I knew was right. After missing my graduation because I didn’t have enough credits, I hacked through summer school and correspondence courses so that I could get my diploma mailed to me. I swear even the mailman was ashamed of me. I took a few sheepish runs at community college in two different cities, failing or withdrawing from nearly every course I took. And throughout those years I essentially cooked my way around a few different restaurants in Littleton and Ft. Collins, being the roommate that nobody wanted. I’m sure a therapist could suss out the actual underlying reasons: a spoiled boy given to believe that the world would see his talents and come to him without asking anything in return. Or a kid subconsciously so tired of hearing about his potential that he chose to prove everyone wrong. Still, too myopic to realize that not achieving your potential is different from not having potential. Whatever. It’s all shredded cheese now, never to be made into a wheel again.
One day I rode my bike to the Army recruiter.
And now, since April 4th, I’ve written two 5-page papers and one 10-page paper, along with all the attendant outlines and intermediate work. I’ve done over 30 writing assignments and 4 tests for a History class. Burned through two spiral notebooks formulating proofs and taken 8 tests for Symbolic Logic. And, God help me, it was easy. Did I mention that I’m an at-home Dad with nearly 100% of the domestic and landscaping duties, and a dog that’s more work than the furnace in A Christmas Story? This is not complaining. This is not me saying “look at all the shit I have to do.” These things are my duties. Life is service, and I am honored to do mine. If I had this attitude while I was in the Army, I’d be almost 20 years in right now, and thinking “retire now, or go for Sergeant Major?” But I also wouldn’t be sitting at this table, writing this post, worrying about my children, and doing the planning I should have been doing 20 years ago. I suppose those things could be happening in some form, but it wouldn’t be this one. And this is the only one I want.
Everything would have been different if none of it was the same. But, as it turns out, everything was exactly the way it was.
It’s a little embarrassing to be doing at 41 what I should have been doing at 21, but I’ll do this until the GI Bill runs out in a few years, and then find a way to a Master’s with any luck. I can live with that.
I was just looking the end of this first quarter of college, coming next week. I’ll be kicking off my new future with a 4.0 GPA. It suddenly occurred to me that holy shit, the world is mine. And I have a family. the world is ours. Foreign languages, every job conceivable. You’re never too old to be giddy, never too old to do further right. Sorry, Mom and Dad, that I wasn’t listening to you 25 years ago.
My 8 year old Girl is reading a book about Presidential elections, my 5 year old Boy is making a “sword that transforms into another kind of sword, and sometimes a gun.” I’m measuring infinity in units like the poetic yard and the GigaWaffle (Cool Whip x e9, or something like that). And technology. I just told my speaker to “play jazz for deep thought,” and carried it outside while Miles Davis spun up. It’s just past 11:00pm. My sleep schedule has shifted since school started, going to bed much later now, as I spend much of my evenings saying goodnight to my kids, then goodnight to my wife, then doing homework. But it’s after 11:00 and I’m just getting drowsy. I submitted an online Philosophy quiz, removed my headphones, and realized in that howling silence of a sleeping house, that there was rain tapping at the window over my shoulder. So I told the speaker to play that jazz, turned off the lights behind me, and stood in the open front door. Right shoulder leaning against the jamb, feet crossed, and the languid cacophony of the night. Dogs, sirens, rain. The soft friction of a giant Western Red Cedar across the street. A hundred feet tall and probably as old, sounding in the whispering night like all of its nested birds are shushing their babies to sleep. It creaks when the wind is stronger. The fear of God. The sound of traffic is distant, and at this hour it is sporadic. The airplanes cannot be heard over the rain, but their strobing lights give them away as they play tag with Boeing Field, and Seatac farther south. There’s a U-Haul sign all lit up about half a mile off. On a clear day it’s the herald to our view of Mt. Rainier, another hundred miles south and east.
Tomorrow we’ll read poems at the breakfast table. Five or six by Silverstein every morning. I’m at the head of the table with the kids flanking me. We’re in Where the Sidewalk Ends, have already finished A Light in the Attic, and before that we read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Abstractions and delights (that would make for a nice title to a collection itself). As we start they are seated plainly, but after a verse or two they have gotten to their knees, leaning way in towards the book. Towards the center of the table. Towards me. Our heads nearly touch and call to mind a funny Far Side comic:
My daughter can read and she is scanning the words as I say them. My son cannot read and he is scanning my face instead. I am stared at and I stare back and I pause: “Papa needs his coffee.” I love our rituals. They’re always eating before I am (no, L.T., the troops eat first), and as I come to the table I see the book at my place. Set there by The Girl. She’ll put it back after, too, but not until The Boy tucks the dust jacket over the last page we read and closes the book on it, marking our place for tomorrow.