Sunday, October 22, 2006

Return of the Tree Man

About three years ago, we hired a guy to trim some trees, and take down some that were severely damaged by a series of storms. His name was Dave. He was a recovering alcoholic who’d hit bottom, embarked on the recovery road, and started his own tree service. He was quiet and painfully shy, but we noticed that our two dogs immediately liked him, and our cat, who would normally hide when anyone strange came around, actually came up to introduce himself.

Dylan was three then, and he loved watching Dave work. We’d keep him a safe distance away, which wasn’t close enough for Dylan’s liking. It was clear that Dave felt more comfortable around animals and children than other adults.

Dylan started screaming, “The Tree Man’s here, the Tree Man’s here!” when Dave drove up. Dylan would then walk up to Dave and quiz him as to what his plans were for the day, what equipment he’d use, and how long the job would take. Thus, Dave would begin his work day with a "this is what I'll do" briefing, and end his day with a "this is what I did" briefing. Dave seemed to genuinely enjoy his morning talks with Dylan, and would only stop when Rhonda or I insisted that Dylan let him get to work. I think being a hero to a three year-old meant a lot to him.

Dave once told Rhonda that he had several nephews and nieces who’d lived in the area, but had moved away. He missed them.

Dave was about 90% done with our tree work when he didn’t show up one day. He called, saying he was feeling poorly, and would be by in a couple of days. He called a couple of days later to say he’d be by the following week. Then he simply quit calling.

We heard through the grapevine that Dave had started drinking again. His business and his girlfriend had left him.

Several weeks ago, Rhonda drove up to our front gate, and spotted a shape covered by a tarp sitting aside the driveway. Underneath the tarp was a chainsaw sculpture of a dinosaur, four feet tall, carved out of a solid piece of oak. There was a note. “I’ve been sober again for three weeks. I wanted to do this for Dylan because he talked so much about dinosaurs. Sorry I didn’t finish your work. Dave the Tree Man.”

"You think he knew?" I pondered Rhonda's question. "I don't see how," I replied. "I know I never mentioned it to Dave." "Me neither," said Rhonda.

The Tree Man had delivered the dinosaur on Dylan's birthday.

Three years had passed since Dylan and Dave had their series of morning briefings. I hope he’s doing well. Dylan loves his dinosaur.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Flying and Dying

Mick is a friend, a coworker, and sometimes, one of my copilots. Often, our rapport consists of good-natured, adolescent bantering of the kind found among pilots, cops, firemen, and other workplaces dominated, in terms of numbers, by men.

But sometimes, especially when we’re flying together on a long offshore flight, we talk about serious stuff. Although he carries benign obnoxiousness to an art form, Mick has a sensitive side, try as he might to hide it.

One day about two years ago, we were inbound to shore from an offshore oil platform. The flight would take an hour, and we were halfway to our base in Morgan City, Louisiana. We’d been quiet for a while when Mick’s voice came through my headset: “Do you ever think about dying in a helicopter?”

Wow. I'd never before been asked that so . . . directly. I answered, “Y’mean, say I screw up an emergency procedure?” “No,” replied Mick, “I mean from a catastrophic failure of some kind. Nothing you can do.” “Such as a main rotor separation, or a transmission failure?” I asked. (You might say I'm the kinda guy who needs things spelled out for him.) “Yeah.” Silence.

We train, both in the simulator and actual aircraft, for many emergencies. We don't train for main rotor separations, and we don't train for transmission failures. Neither event has an emergency procedure. There is nothing in the emergency checklist titled, "What to Do Before Dying."

I looked across the cockpit at Mick. “Yeah, sometimes. Most of the time, if those thoughts are there, I suppose I suppress them. But once in awhile, a bolt of unwanted awareness comes over me: I realize that in two or three minutes, I could be dead.” (Please know that I don't talk that way all the time, in case that last statement left you wary of ever meeting me in person.)

“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” said Mick.

I thought for a moment. Mick's timing seemed almost scripted. A week earlier, I’d stood over my sleeping five year-old son with tears in my eyes, thinking of the pilots who’d died in helicopter accidents since I’d hired on with my employer in 1979. Over twenty guys, and most of them had left wives and kids behind. Over twenty guys, most of whom I’d known personally, to one degree or another. I looked at my little boy, and asked myself in thought, “What kind of guy leaves his family alone half the time to make a living, with the real risk he’ll never come back?” Tears filled my eyes as I looked down at him. If I truly loved my wife and son, shouldn’t I do something else?

Mick was married with a daughter, a toddler. “Mick, do you ever think that you should do something else for a living? I mean, hell, you worked in a bank back home in Ireland before you started flying, and I suppose some bank robber could have blown you away while you were at work. But, you probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if you still worked there. Do you ever think that you should do something else for the sake of your family?”

“When did you become such a pussy?” asked Mick. I laughed, a little startled by the return of Mick the Smart-Ass. “Asshole,” I shot at Mick. He laughed, and then returned to Thoughtful Mick. “Yeah, sometimes I do.”

"Me too," I said.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Five. Oh.

Last month, I turned fifty. I'm a little disappointed. Most of my friends and coworkers are five to fifteen years older, and for many of them, fifty was one of those big deals in life, a time for intense reflection, of taking stock of triumphs and regrets. A few of them bought flashy cars and started dyeing their hair.

For me, passing this particular birthday milestone has been a little anti-climactic. Yeah, it's been a little weird to think that I'm now eligible to join the AARP, and I have found myself in moments of quiet reflection as I take stock of the events of my life. Still . . . perhaps it seems not such a big deal because I became a dad relatively late in life. Perhaps it's because I got married fairly late in life. Perhaps it's because I exercise for fitness, and not in competitive endeavors that spotlight any performance decline. Perhaps it's because I recently squared off against two of my twenty-something copilots in ping pong matches and waxed both of 'em. (Heh heh, but no, I'm not gloating.)

I dunno. I suppose that if I pondered and fretted long enough, I might dredge up some trauma attached to the event, but life throws us enough curve balls. I don't feel the need to add any drama or trauma to my time on this world.

For now, I'll stick with my little white Ford Focus. The gray hair? It can stay, too. It's part of me, and part of my story.

And I'm stickin' to it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Just One Little House

I was in my early twenties when I first recall having the dream. In the dream, I drive to my parent's house, and come to a stop abeam it. It's the house I spent my growing-up years in, between the ages of two and eighteen. But now, although the color of the house is the same, it looks darker. Now, the lawn and the tree outside haven't changed, except they look less alive.

My Mom and Dad aren't there. They're gone.

I would usually wake up from the dream with a feeling of dread. Underlying the dread was a sort of low-grade horror. My parents should always be there.

When my employer offered me a position in California in 1982, I moved back to my home town in southern California. It was wonderful to spend time with my Mom, Dad, and sister again. The dreams became less frequent, but they still came.

My dad died, suddenly, in 1991, nine years before my son was born. I had a dream one night that Dad was still alive, and that Rhonda, Dylan, and I were visiting. In the dream, Dylan was twelve instead of five, and I watched from the kitchen window as my dad and he bent over the engine of a 1959 Chevy pickup.

My mom did live to meet her grandson. She held him and talked to him and marveled over his development. When I would tell Mom about some new thing that her baby grandson had done, she would often accuse me, jokingly, of making it up. "Oh Honey, he's too young for that," she'd commonly reply. Then, as I learned later, she'd almost immediately call one of her sisters to brag about how well her precious grandson was doing in the Milestone Derby.

My Mom died in 2001, of complications from lung cancer. Dylan was fifteen months old. He remembered her until he reached three-and-a-half. Then he didn't.

My sister and I are renting out Mom and Dad's house to a young woman my sister knows. We could have sold it easily, but the young woman has a daughter, and if we sold the house, she'd have no choice to move back into a small apartment. Also, my sister and I aren't ready to let the house slip from our grasps.

In April of last year, I drove a car from home in northern California to Louisiana, where it would serve as my "airport car." I stopped for the night in Ventura, where I met an old girlfriend and her daughter for dinner. As I drove away the next morning, I made the short detour to Oxnard, and Mom and Dad's house.

It was early, and the street was quiet. I stopped across the street from the house, got out of the car, and leaned on the hood. There was the house I'd grown up in, with other people now living there. There was no sign of stirring yet from the house, nor from the entire street. I looked at the house for ten minutes or so. It looked pretty much the same, and yet it didn't. I wanted to walk up on the lawn, and perhaps pinch a leaf from the tree, but I didn't.

I got back in the car, then headed for the Pacific Coast Highway, where I passed Point Mugu, Malibu, and Santa Monica, enroute to join Interstate 10 eastbound.

I remember thinking, "I need to walk into the house, someday."

I will. Someday.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Privacy Ain't Dead, but it's Lookin' a Little Wimpy

In a recent blog, Algernon provided some wry commentary on the proliferation of video surveillance in the United States. Privacy has indeed taken a major hit due to video surveillance, but on the horizon I see something even more worrisome.

It's called Radio Frequency Identification--RFID--and if you thought video surveillance threatened your privacy, wait until these little tags become commonplace, which seems inevitable.

Those "little tags" harbor minuscule radio antennas and microchips. They transmit an identifying number to an electronic reader, which then links to a computer database. Sounds a lot like what bar codes do, right? Yeah, but these little gadgets allow the identifying number to be read from as far away as 750 feet. According to a recent Consumer Reports article, RFID's are already more a fact of life than many of us realize: through early 2006, sales of all RFID's, since their inception into the market, totaled 2.4 billion. In 2006 alone, sales are expected to reach 1.3 billion, and by 2015, sales could reach one trillion.

RFID's are now in the new contactless payment cards, some items in Walmart and Best Buy, in library books, and in U.S. passports. As the use of RFID's proliferates, more and more information about the consumer will be available to corporations and to the government. It would appear that in the future, nearly everything we buy--from lightbulbs to lipstick, from shampoo to socks--will be traceable to the consumer's credit card. According to Consumer Reports, RFID's may soon even be sewn inside clothing, or even in the soles of shoes.

RFID's can even be inserted in people. In the U.S., about 100 people have been "chipped," mostly folks with serious medical problems. (The idea is that if you're incapacitated, an ER doc can access your medical records.)

Security is another issue. It will likely be possible for electronic eavesdroppers to glean sensitive information when data is transmitted from RFID's to readers.

The advent of RFID's hasn't seemed to cause much of a ripple with folks at large. Perhaps as long as we have sufficient multitudes enjoying their SUV's, iPods, and low-interest mortgages, the potential pitfalls of this new threat to privacy won't seem to loom too largely.

Perhaps therein lies the real heart of the problem.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Thoughts of Mothers' Day, and the Guy Who Loved Her Too

It's Mother's Day. I'm thinking of my own mom, and of my wife, the mother of my son.

She can be tough as nails, yet inside lies a tender heart, and a little girl's sense of wonder. She's one of the bravest people I've ever known, and a mere kiss on my cheek from her still seems to travel straight to my soul.

I'm also thinking of Wade Harter, who died thirty summers ago.

When Rhonda and I started dating during our senior year in high school, Wade Harter, a friend to us both, confessed to me that he'd been in love with Rhonda since he'd first met her. It was a strange moment, but Wade was such an earnest, honest, stand-up guy that the episode really didn't live up to its potential for awkwardness.

Rhonda loved him too, but not in that way. I already knew that.

Wade came from a poor family, and had no hope of attending college through any help from his parents. He carried college prep classes, worked thirty-six hours a week after school and on weekends, and was an overachieving average-sized guy on the football team. Despite a country-bumpkin demeanor, he was smart both in the academic and practical sense. He was also one of the genuinely warmest, kindest, and funniest people I've ever met in my life. He was the sort of guy who would drop everything to help someone out, despite the fact that he hardly had enough spare time to blow his nose.

I expected that Wade and I would no longer be friends. I was wrong. Wade, being the special man he was, stayed friends with Rhonda, and with me. At one point, I remember being worried that I would somehow ruin the developing relationship with Rhonda by overthinking things. It was Wade who reassured me and bolstered my confidence, all the while with a hurt look in his eyes. I was lucky to keep him as a friend. I was lucky that he happened to like the guy who'd won the heart of the girl he loved.

I went off to Army flight training a few months after graduating from high school. It's an old, sad story: boy gets girl, boy goes into military, boy loses girl. It wasn't long before things grew strained between Rhonda and me. We tried to hold on to what we had, but then came horrible news.

Wade had secured a full-ride scholarship at the University of Wyoming. It was his dream come true, as he wanted to live the rest of his days in Wyoming. But then, on the Fourth of July, between his sophomore and junior years, a drunk driver crossed over a double yellow line and slammed into Wade's car. Wade was killed instantly.

Wade's death seemed to dissolve the remaining glue that held Rhonda and me together. We'd already broken up, but after Wade's death, we talked less and less. Soon, we would simply stop talking.

The feelings between us didn't disappear, though. Rhonda and I saw each other again in 1993, eighteen years after breaking up, and we married five months later.

Hey, sometimes I still don't believe it.

So now, I wish my wife, and all the mothers out there, a Happy Mother's Day. Our little boy will soon turn six, and I cannot think of a mother alive who has showered more love on a child. I'm thankful that she fell in love with me back in 1974, and not the guy who I know in my heart was the better man.

As for me, I think of myself as a good husband, and a good father, but I hope that someday I'll be as good a man as Wade Harter.

That's a tall order.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Iron-Fisted Parenting

Our five going-on-six year-old, Dylan, has pretty much been a little gentleman since starting kindergarten. Although he's bigger than most of the kids in his class, he doesn't push his classmates around. We were warned by other parents to watch for profanity sneaking into his speech once his schooling started, but that didn't happen. Like his mom, he's both sweet and headstrong, but overall, he's what you'd call an "easy" kid.

That sets the stage for tonight. Rhonda and I are lying next to him in bed. He's had a bath, we've read him a story, and he's winding down. Rhonda asks, "What word do you break just by saying it?" I started to think about that one.

Dylan didn't think long at all. Immediately, he answers, "Ass and shit."

With hands covering our mouths, it took a few minutes for Rhonda and I to cease our choked, muffled laughter. Damn, it can be really hard not to laugh at your kid when you know laughing ain't the most parentally appropriate course of action. Finally, we regained our composure enough to explain to Dylan that those weren't the words to use, and why.

But sheesh, he knew we were laughing our, er, asses off. I hope we had some credibility.

Oh man. Parenting can be such a challenge.

Oh yeah. What word does one break just by saying it? Silence.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

One Particular Reprieve

Thanks to my banged-up foot, my two-week break at home has been stretched to three weeks or more. We worked at getting our garden going again. Since Dylan was born, we really haven't done much with it, but now that he's into "helping," we're hoping to have fresh vegetables again this summer.

I'd been inside for awhile, elevating my foot, which had been injured by an uncanny collaboration of one woman's breasts and a weight plate. I decided to take some water to Rhonda and Dylan, busily working away in the garden. As I began climbing the steps from the driveway to the garden, I heard them laughing. I stopped and watched. They were sitting in a garden bed, throwing mud balls at each other. Finally, Rhonda lunged forward, grabbed Dylan, and commenced tickling and kissing him.

I stood there, watching them as they must often interact when I'm away at work. I felt both sad and happy. Happy to have the chance to see them together in such a way, but sad to know that my job would take me away from them again.

But mostly, I felt grateful to have them in my life.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"A Man's Left Eye Never Marries," and Sometimes That Hurts

It's an old Chinese saying, or so I've been told.

For pretty much my entire adult life, I've had one particular routine: get in shape for a year, get out of shape for a year. This is a get in shape year, so in January, I joined a gym. Since I'm used to getting up at four in the morning on my work schedule, I usually start working out at five in the morning, which allows me to get back home about the time that Rhonda and Dylan get up, on school days.

Once I get back in an exercise routine, I tend to enjoy aerobic exercise, but I've never been that enthusiastic about weight training. I've done it because the exercise gurus say it's a vital part of overall fitness, but I've done it begrudgingly.

But then, in December, while stacking hay bales at home,I pulled a muscle in my upper back. I've never had a problem with pulled muscles before, but hey, I'll be fifty years old soon, so I decided that I should give a little more attention to weight training.

So, last Monday, I'd just finished a set on a shoulder machine. It was one of those machines you actually hang barbell disks upon to get the desired resistance, and I was about to re-rack the weights. A woman approached the machine next to me and bent forward to place her water bottle on the floor. She was wearing a loose-fitting t-shirt, and when she bent forward, she exposed her breasts. Not just in a fleeting, barely noticeable way. No. Those mammaries were right there. In my mind, word balloons led to both of 'em, shouting "LOOK AT ME!"

Now, I'm not one to gawk uncontrollably at women. But sheesh, a guy just can't be expected to be on guard for exposed breasts at five in the morning in the gym. You might say I was sort of, well, startled. But, determined to avoid being a rude dork--a married dork at that--I looked away, and went back to the task of re-racking my weights. I grabbed the weight disk and pulled. It was slow to slide off. I pulled harder. Only then did I actually look at what I was doing. I forgot that I had a smaller, twenty-five pound disk in front of the larger one. Too late. The twenty-five pound disk slipped off of the bar, and fell about four feet. Onto my foot.

I'm proud to say that I didn't unleash a torrent of profanity. But owie mama, did my foot ever hurt. I finished my weight workout out of stubbornness, then hobbled out the door to go home.

When I got home, I pulled off my sock and shoe to find a small wound on the top of my foot. The broken skin was between two metatarsal bones, so I reasoned that I likely hadn't broken anything.

However, nearly a week has passed, and my foot is still swollen and discolored. Rhonda is demanding that I go to the doctor tomorrow to get it checked out. She seems duly concerned, if not exactly sympathetic. Maybe it has something to do with how it happened.