Saturday, March 29, 2014

There are only three people I ever liked getting phone calls from, and one of them is dead

The other morning, I was woken up by a phone call at 7AM.  Under normal circumstances, it would be usual for me to receive any phone call, let alone a call at 7AM, but these are not normal times, for this past week, I started shopping for a car.  I've been without a car since I moved out to Oregon.  Most days I'm happier to be without one, but such will not be the case next year when I move to the urban sprawl of the South Bay to start my new job.

In a dream world, buying a car would be as easy as buying books off of Amazon.  Though some lament the death of the bookstore, I rejoice, because buying things in person is stupid.  A quick glance at a book on a shelf can't compare to the information you get from hundreds of customer reviews and instant price comparisons.  All too often, people forget that the very expression "you can't judge a book by its cover" applies first and foremost to books themselves.

Unfortunately, unlike books, the world of automobiles still seems to operate through the most archaic channels imaginable.  Though I started my search by browsing a variety of automobile websites, what quickly became apparent was how difficult it was to actually find a price on anything.  The manufacturer's websites typically had something like "Starting at $15,999 MSRP..", but then they list 10 different trim options without specific prices on each.  When I went to the dealers' websites, they made me put in my contact information before they'd even show me a price (prices typically labeled "INTERNET SPECIAL OFFER").  All this, just to get some idea of what a particular model actually costs.

In most cases, once I'd seen the price, I no longer had any interest in the car (the hybrid version costs $10,000 more than the gasoline version--it practically pays for itself after 300,000 miles!), but there was no going back from the land of "enter your contact information".  Within 24 hours, my phone would be ringing with the assistant to the secretary of the "internet sales rep" of some dealership saying how she had seen my interest in the Yugo and wanted to know when I could come in for a test drive.  "I'm really too busy to come in for a test drive this week..." --"Great!  We'll schedule you for a test drive Monday morning at 9am!"  That actually happened.  Not only that, but they call at the strangest hours, either 8AM or 8PM, and never in between.

The cars themselves aren't the only things that hide their prices, it seems everything even tangentially connected to cars requires "enter your information to receive an instant price quote".  Car insurance works the same way.  I was curious how much I'd have to pay for insurance, so I went to a few websites, and they required I enter my information before I could receive any prices.  So I did, and I saw the prices, and I was content, because that's all I really wanted to do.  Then, 18 hours later, I'm getting calls from insurance agents wondering why I never completed the transaction ("BECAUSE I DON'T OWN A CAR YET, YOU MORONS!").

But that's nothing... the absolute worst came when, out of curiosity, I inquired about the price of shipping a car across the country.  I foolishly went to a website that promised "instant quotes from 8 different shippers", which really meant they'd give my contact info to 20 different shippers, who couldn't just email me (as they said they would), but also had to call me too.  I filled out the form around 10PM, and discovered the error of my ways when I was woken up by a phone call at 7 AM.  They saw I wanted to ship a car, and wanted to talk to me about it (in reality, I really just wanted to know the price of shipping a car, and didn't want to talk to anyone about anything ever).  What absolutely none of them seemed to realize, when I filled out the form requesting a quote on shipping from the east coast to the west coast was that I would be on the receiving end of that.  By the time I had received 3 calls before 7:30, I had given up explaining how they had just woken me up, and instead just said "I will never, ever give you money so don't ever talk to me again" and hung up the phone.

And therein lies the beauty of  I never get phone calls for them, because no human could possibly provide me with the level of service their computers do automatically.

The whole process has really left me quite bitter about cars, and I've only been to one dealer so far.  I was almost tempted to just buy a car on the spot so I wouldn't have to deal with this anymore, but then I remembered my conversation with the lady at the DMV who informed me, in not so many words, that I would never, ever be allowed to register a car here in Oregon.  Apparently I need an Oregon driver's license to register a car here in Oregon ("okay, how can I get an Oregon driver's license?"  --"You can't!").

More updates to come as the car hunt continues.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fencing Tournament Recap: 2/22/2014


Turns out it's been two years since I last fenced in a competition.  Much of that time was spent racing bikes, working on my dissertation, and not practicing fencing, so going to a tournament wouldn't have been very productive.  I think I only made it to fencing practice once all of last term, but this term, I've had a little bit more time and so not only have I been going to fencing practice twice a week, on most of those days, I've actually taken a short epee lesson.  Certainly the training is rather minimal compared to what I was doing at Brown, but a little consistency goes a long way, and so I was looking forward to seeing how I'd do against some real competition.

The tournament was an hour away in Salem.  I drove up with Adam, my coach (who was also competing), and we got there an hour early for the scheduled 1PM start time.  Turns out they were "running a little behind" (what fencing tournament isn't?), and it ended up starting around 3.  There were 24 people registered, including 3 A's--one of whom was almost certain to win the whole thing.  The strange thing about me and epee fencing is that it doesn't actually matter who's on the strip in front of me: whether it's a 14 year-old kid who's been fencing for a year, or a 30 year-old Olympian, I am equally terrified.  It is for that reason that even though I ended up being seeded in the easy pool (the one without one of the A's), I was still very uneasy.

When we split up into our pools, I noticed a fencer who looked familiar.  He was someone I vaguely remembered having fenced before... some 10+ years ago... in New England... in saber. How on earth another New England saber fencer ended up fencing epee in Salem, Oregon I'll never quite figure out, but it made for an easy win for me, because all I had to do was make him think he had right of way and then counterattack.  I finished 4-1 in my pool with a strong indicator, and was seeded 4th overall (behind the 3 A's).  At this point I had mixed feelings: on one hand, I felt like I really shouldn't have lost that one bout (it was 4-5 to a guy who wasn't very good), on the other hand, I felt like seeded 4th overall was better than I deserved.  At least it gave me (what should have been) a relatively easy path to the top 4.

I had a bye in the round of 32, and so my first DE was in the top 16 against a kid, probably 14 years old, who looked like he'd be a really good fencer in about 5 years, but right now, he was a hot mess.  I got up 2-0, and then passivity'd my way into the third period.  I was kind of hoping he would just let me passivity it all the way to the win, but some people started strip coaching him to attack, and so he got really aggressive, and I got scared.  We went back and forth a little bit--he tied it up a number of times.  I kept thinking I was going to lose, but managed to pull off a few nice touches at the end to win by 2.  It wasn't pretty, and I really should have won by 10, but at least I was still in it.

My next bout was another odd one; I was up against a female epee fencer that I remembered used to fence for Cornell while I was at Brown.  As of 10 years ago, she was wicked good, but appeared to be a little rusty (turns out she hadn't competed in 7 years and her only goal was "not to DFL").  She was clearly a little rusty, but while I had the size and speed advantage over her, she had the "I know what I'm doing" advantage over me.  It was a close bout.  She liked to attack my leg a lot (something I'm still not used to defending from my saber days), and I was having surprising success hitting her with a quick remise to the hand.  I managed snag the 15-14 lead, and simultaneously felt like I shouldn't have won that bout and that I should have won it by a lot more.

This put me into the top 4 where I was up against Adam, my coach.  He was probably the hardest of all the A's for me to match up against, because not only is he a good fencer, but he also coaches me and fences me in practice, so he knows how to beat me.  The one thing I had going for me was he had never fenced "tournament mode Dan" before.  I don't fence tournaments like I fence practice.  In practice, I'm much more relaxed.  Physically, I hold something back, and mentally, I'm much more experimental.  In tournaments, physically I am much more committed, and tactically I restrict my action choice from "things that I want to work on" to "things I do well."  This actually managed to catch him a bit by surprise, and I got up to a 5-2 lead early.  I was in a much more advantageous position than I had realized, and so after he grabbed a couple of strong parry-ripostes against me, I started to panic.  In retrospect, I should have just stuck with exactly what I was doing, and played the percentages, but I thought he had "figured me out" and I had to change.  As I scrambled to try to find new things I could do win, I fell right into his game.  I ended up losing by a fairly sizable margin (I think 15-9) to finish third, while he went on to win the tournament.

Overall, my result wasn't too bad, but I don't really think about that--all I think about are the things I should have done better.  I don't want to be scared of every scrub who steps on the strip across from me, and I don't want every DE to be a struggle.  I suppose there's no secret, no mystery as to how to accomplish this.  I need to practice more often, I need to get more tournament experience, and I need to suck less.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lone Survivor & Fort Sensible

Though free wifi still doesn't seem to be standard practice in every hotel, one thing that is a given is that every room will have a television, and at least a handful of the standard cable channels.  I don't own a TV at home, and though I selectively stream a handful of shows, I don't have to subject myself to standard TV commercials, and so often I'm unaware of the latest buzz.  While I was on the road, I noticed a lot of buzz on the TV about a new movie called Loan Survivor--a military movie supposedly inspired by the true story of some Navy SEALs.  I have to say, it takes a lot of balls to give away the ending of your movie in the title, but I was intrigued, and so I decided to do a little research.  Turned out the film was based on a book which was based on the true story, and so I could save myself the hassle of putting on pants, and just download the book from the Kindle store.

This blog review is based on the true story of one man's perilous struggle to survive some of the crappiest writing that was ever signed off on by the Department of Defense's PR department.

Now normally I would include some sort of "spoiler warning" when I was about to discuss the finer plot points of a book, but I feel as though all bets are off when the the ending of the book in contained in its title.  Marcus Luttrell is a member of a four-man SEAL team sent on a reconnaissance mission in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Things start to get interesting (from a literary perspective) when Marcus and his team are discovered by the Taliban, and must fight for their survival.  Despite being outnumbered by over 100 Taliban, Marcus and his team fight with all they've got.  After all, they're Navy SEALs and they're not going to go down without a fight.

The SEALs pride themselves on their toughness, their determination, and their refusal to surrender.  This is also buoyed by a principle of never leaving a man behind on the battlefield.  Though they'll go into some of the most dangerous situations, they know they've always got each other's backs.  Lone Survivor details this commitment.  At one point during the ambush, two of the team members have already been fatally wounded.  The remaining two are badly hurt.  Of those two, the one who isn't Marcus heroically calls for backup, which necessitates running out from cover and exposing himself to enemy fire in order to get a radio signal.  He is, in effect, sacrificing himself in order to support his one remaining squadmate.

Back at the base, they receive the distress call, and waste no time.  They load up a helicopter with 8 Navy SEALs and 8 Army Special Ops men, who got in a helicopter and flew to the heart of the conflict to take on at least 100 well-trained, heavily armed, Taliban fighters in order to rescue what was at that point, at most, one viable soldier, and even he would likely be dead by the time they arrived.  Ultimately, none of that mattered because the helicopter was blown up in the air, and all 16 men were killed.  At this point, I couldn't help but think of Fort Sensible.

Fort Sensible was introduced in the Whacking Day episode of The Simpsons.  Marge and Bart visit Olde Springfield Towne where they learn the history of the fort.
Guide: The enemy surrounded the fort, and said that if the captain was sent out, the rest would be spared.
Bart: What did they do?
Guide: They sent him out!
Bart: Was he killed?
Guide: And how! That's why they call it 'Fort Sensible'.
The joke is, of course, that despite the classic military machismo and never give-in attitude that is pervasive in the military, in many cases there is a a much more 'sensible' solution that leaves everyone better off.  But if there's on thing that you should learn from reading this book, it's that being a SEAL is about being tough, it's about being determined, it's about being loyal, it's about being an expertly trained soldier, but it's never about being sensible.

But before Marcus and his SEAL team got into trouble, the reader should already be suitably troubled by some of the things in the book.  Of course, one of the things that helped make Marcus into such the tough man was that his father beat him.
When we were young, working the horses, my dad was very, very tough on us.  He considered that good grades were everything, bad ones were simply unacceptable.  I once got a C in conduct, and he beat me with a saddle girth.  I know he was doing it for our own good, trying to instill discipline in his sons, which would serve them well later in life.
 He seems to fancy this a good thing.  I seem to fancy this as an explanation as to why later in life, he would want to kill any Afghan that looked at him the wrong way (also, "conduct", that's not even a real subject).  When Marcus sets off for Afghanistan, it is clear he is motivated by a deeply-ingrained love of corporal punishment, and may not be going for the most sensible of reasons.
They may not have been the precise same guys who planned 9/11.  But they were most certainly their descendants, their heirs, their followers.  They were part of the same crowd who knocked down the North and South towers in the Big Apple on the infamous Tuesday morning in 2001.
The idea of "communal punishment" is a very troubling one, and Marcus seems to have no qualms whatsoever.  Certainly the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were worthy of punishment, but the direct perpetrators all died in the attack--they couldn't be punished.  Those who conspired with the perpetrators were hard to find, but Marcus, George W Bush, and all too many Americans clearly wanted vengeance, and so anyone who fit the profile of a terrorist was going to have to pay, regardless of whether he had committed any specific offenses.  Marcus really took the the idea of revenge.  As he even noted, one of the few possessions he brought with him when he went overseas to fight was a DVD player and a copy of his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo.  Marcus describes it by saying "It's always an inspiration to me, always raises my spirits to watch one brave, innocent man's lonely fight against overpowering forces of evil in an unforgiving world."  Now, perhaps if Marcus were more the literary type, he might have read the novel instead of just watching the Hollywood version, and if he had, he might have picked up on the part where Edmand Dant├Ęs's lust for revenge ends up hurting innocent people, and causes him to lose his humanity.

The parts of the book detailing the combat in Afghanistan are actually, by far, the best parts.  The unfortunate part of this book is that in order to even get to the fighting, the reader has to make it through 100 pages of SEAL training, and Marcus telling everyone why SEALs are the greatest people to ever walk the face of the Earth

We could fight in a much more ruthless manner, stop worrying if everyone still loved us.  If we did that, we'd probably win in both Afghanistan and Iraq in about a week.
But we're not allowed to do that.  And I guess we'd better start getting used to the conseqeuences and permit the American liberals to squeak and squeal us to ultimate defeat.  I believe that's what it's called when you pack up and go home, when a war fought under your own "civilized" terms is unwinnable. 
I have only one piece of advice for what it's worth: if you don't want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, where innocent people sometimes have to die, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.
That last part is probably the first sensible thing he's written in the whole book.  And he's right.  We should have stayed the hell out of Afghanistan in the first place.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this book is the complete lack of perspective that Marcus has about our place in the world.  For starters, he doesn't seem to quite comprehend why there would be such hostility towards U.S. armed forces (unless, of course, the people were all evil terrorists).
In fact, there were districts in Manama known as black flag areas, where tradesmen, shopkeepers, and private citizens hung black flags outside their properties to signify Americans are not welcome.  I guess it wasn't quite as vicious as Juden Verboten was in Hitler's Germany.  But there are undercurrents of hatred all over the Arab world, and we knew there were many sympathizers with the Muslim extremist fanatics of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Because really, being Jewish is just like being part of a massive, foreign, occupying military presence.  His lack of perspective continues to show with his frequent diatribes against the "liberals" (both politicians and the media) who are always criticizing the U.S. Armed Forces.  His specific point of contention are the "rules of engagement" that state the they cannot open fire on the Afghans unless they (the Afghans) attack first, or have been positively identified and have proof of their intentions.  To Marcus, this is crazy, especially because of how hard it can be to identify those foreigners who wish to attack Americans, and those foreigners who just resent the American occupation.  He would much rather be able to kill them at his discretion, and it's clear he would err on the side of caution.

Fundamentally, Marcus doesn't seem to Middle Easterners as being inherently equal to Americans.  I suppose this might a necessary coping mechanism to deal with war, but to him,they are not people with names, feelings, and identities, they are "Abdul the Bombmaker or whatever the hell his name was."  Ultimately, this becomes a crucial plot point, as Marcus believes that these "rules of engagement" cost him and his team their lives.

While the four-man SEAL team was dropped into the mountains doing their reconnaissance, they happened to be discovered by several Afghan goatherds who were just taking their goats for a casual stroll through the mountains.  They weren't doing anything nefarious, and they were unarmed, but they had the misfortune of stumbling across some American SEALs.  Marcus and his team are unsure what to do.  They want to kill the goatherds, but some of them are afraid of what the liberal politicians and media will do to them.  Their only other (apparent) option is to set them free and continue on in their mission.  Again, Fort Sensible seems to strike again--once they have been discovered, the mission is over.  At that point, extraction should be their first and only priority.  But that's not how SEALs think.  SEALs are tough sons of bitches, and they never give up on a mission... even if it turns out 19 soldiers are killed, and the mission objectives are never completed anyway.... but they'll be damned if they admit defeat.

After the fact, Marcus laments that he didn't kill them.  Clearly he should have, because by virtue of the fact that they told people what they had seen, which clearly meant they were evil terrorists.  At no point did he stop to put himself in their shoes--imaging going for a stroll in your home town when you stumble across four heavily armed, foreign soldier.  Would you keep quiet to make sure they can continue their mission.  Who even knows what their mission was?  Also, just because the Taliban soldiers found out doesn't mean the goatherds were with the Taliban--they could have just been goatherds by day, journalists by night.  The discovery of four Navy SEALs was probably a front page story on the Hindu Kush Times.

After Marcus and his team are ambushed, he talks about the pain of losing his squadmates; how he still hears their dying screams in his sleep.  What he doesn't seem to comprehend is that is the pain he is inflicting on others every time he kills.  Even Tom Clancy novels, which are as pro-military as they come, typically reflects that understanding.  Marcus resents the rules of engagement because they jeopardize the safety of the people he cares about.  He doesn't understand that they are in place to provide for the safety of people he doesn't care about, but whose feelings are just as important.  The protections for the Aghans are in place not because the terrorists deserve to be protected, but because we want to make damn sure that the people we're killing are terrorists before we kill them.  That is our one claim to moral superiority over them.

My criticisms of this book are not just limited to criticisms of Marcus's philosophies of war.  It's also because of the remarkable time devoted to self-aggrandizement.  At every step of the way, the reader is assured that despite the non-stop boasts of the incredible abilities of the SEALs, they are actually quite humble people (humble people deliver such quotes as: "It has occurred to me that you might be wondering why we thought we were so goddamned superior to everyone else, why we felt entitled to our own private brand of arrogance").  While I suppose it is possible that Marcus Luttrell is the lone turd in the punch bowl, it seems that while they may not outwardly boast, humble, they are absolutely not.  Mirriam-Webster defines humble as "not proud : not thinking of yourself as better than other people", and this book definitely gives the impression that these SEALs fancy themselves better than other people.  I suspect that the reason they may avoid outward boasts is that to articulate their claims would be to subject them to attack.  It's a lot easier to think yourself the greatest than it actually is to defend that claim (though to Muhammad Ali's credit, he gave it a damn good try).  Perhaps the most egregious offense came after Marcus finished sniper school, about which he said, "SEALs don't look for personal credit, and thus I cannot say who the class voted their honor man."  Now, at this point in the book, the reader hasn't actually been introduced to any other characters at sniper school, and so there are only two possibilities: either Marcus himself was voted the "honor man", in which case he is boasting and looking for personal credit, or else someone else was voted the "honor man" in which case the key character here has not yet been introduced to the reader, which is one of the greatest literary sins there is.  Neither option reflects well on the author. 

In response to his boasts about his, and the SEALs superiority, I must state my objections.  While I certainly won't argue that the SEALs are exceptionally good at what they do, just what is it that they do?  They suffer a lot.  They're kind of strong, but not exceptionally talented at any particular physical feat.  They can suffer a lot.  They can shoot people, and work well in groups.  They can brag.  The thing about the SEALs is they are exceptionally gifted men, but if they had been just a little more gifted, they wouldn't have wasted their time being SEALs.  At one point, he mentions that it's harder to become a Navy SEAL than it is to graduate from Harvard Law School.  It's also harder to memorize 50,000 decimal places of pi than it is to graduate from Harvard Law School, but if anyone were to ask which pursuit was more worthwhile, I would have to say the latter.

My final thoughts on this book are simple: if you're thinking about reading it, do yourself a favor and read Starship Troopers instead.  It's got a very similar pro-military message, but written by an author who actually knows how to write.  Though Marcus Luttrell spends much of the book telling the reader every possible positive quality a Navy SEAL could have, not once does he mention writing ability.  It shows.  Starship Troopers, on the other hand, features such literary mainstays as "plot" and "character development", Lone Survivor just feels like a collage of anecdotes, and despite the remarkable series of events that results in Marcus being the only survivor of a massive Taliban ambush, it doesn't actually appear that he has grown or learned anything from the ordeal.  Because SEALs don't learn--they've already been bred to perfection.  I suppose it's good for his ego, but it sure doesn't make for a compelling narrative.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Sausage Banana

You love the taste of sausage, but yearn for a more convenient way to eat it on the go.  You love the convenience and portability of a banana, but hate the taste.  If this sounds like you, then I have got the product that will revolutionize your life.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Sausage Banana.

The Sausage Banana combines the a sausage and a banana into one new superfruit, and the best part of all is that you can make it easily at home.

Start with an ordinary banana, and make an incision along the spine to extract the foul fruit within.

You can throw it straight into the garbage, since no one will ever want to eat a regular banana again after trying the banana sausage.

Next, take a sausage and stuff it into the banana peel (recommended: pre-cook the sausage).

Some household staples should seal it all up nicely, but for those of you who prefer a more watertight seal, I assume regular household caulk should do the trick nicely.

Once it's all sealed up, you can just put it in your pocket and go about your business.  Then later, while you're out and about and you find yourself hungry, just unpeel and eat.

This is my magnum opus.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Movie Reviews: My Dinner with Andre

From time to time I write movie reviews for my blog, but it is odd for me to write about a movie that was released four years before I was, but the other day I finally sat down and watched My Dinner with Andre, and believe it is worth writing about.

Like most things in life, I was first exposed to this film via the Simpsons, in this scene at the Noiseland Arcade, when Martin is playing the My Dinner with Andre video game.

When I first saw this episode, I was 8 years old, and had no clue that this was even a movie.  Why would an 8 year-old even know about an independent film, made four years before he was even born, that consisted of nothing but two men having a conversation over dinner?  And yet, without explicitly "getting" the reference, the notion of a video game consisting of two men having an existential conversation is still funny, and the fact that Martin is enthralled by it only makes it better.  To understand that this was actually a movie only makes it better.  This is the Simpsons writers at their best.  This is why "Simpsons writer" is a thing, and carries with it a certain reverence.  At the point when I discovered that this was actually a real movie transformed this, in my mind, from simply an absurdist joke into a satirization of the whole business of making video games out of movies.  Who in their right mind would think to make a video game out of a movie that's just two men having an existential conversation over dinner?

And yet, in a more recent viewing of that episode (Boy-Scoutz 'n the Hood), another thought came to mind: as absurd as it is to make is video game out of this, it is, in fact, equally absurd to even make the film to begin with.  It was with this realization that I decided that this was a film I simply had to see.

Describing the plot of film is really quite simple.  Wallace Shawn goes to meet Andre Gregory for dinner.  They eat and talk, and then go home.  As one might ascertain from the Simpsons' parody, Andre is the alpha dog in this conversation.  I was considering writing a python script to parse the film's script and produce a breakdown of how many lines each character had... but I got lazy, so believe me when I say, unscientifically, Andre talk big words.  Wallace listen, interject sparsely.  Got it?  Andre speaks primarily in anecdotes, but with the purpose of better understanding the world.

If I were to be asked to describe their conversation in any more detail, I'm afraid I simply couldn't do it.  Not at all.  This is a film that causes one's mind to wander, and I don't mean that in a bad way.  It is an experience that often occurs to me while reading.  I will be reading a book, and something in the book will trigger a thought, and I will begin pondering that thought in greater detail.  Meanwhile, I will continue the act of "reading", and though I am aware of, and process, every word on the page, I am blissfully unaware of what any of it says.  That was the experience I had watching this movie.  I was watching the characters move their lips, and I was experiencing sensations caused by their dialog, but if someone were to pause the film and ask me to recount what Andre had just spoken about, I wouldn't have the slightest clue.  Sherlock Holmes (or, perhaps more appropriately, Maria Sharapova) would have been so disappointed with my powers of observation.

Despite my lack of conscious processing of dialog, I really like this film, but perhaps more than actually liking this film, I like that this film exists: a film with no action, no romance, and no conflict, outside of their own thoughts.  I appreciate the variety, and it is in harmony with my own personal philosophy that it's better to be different than popular.  But watching this film, I couldn't help but also think about video games as well.  Though it was just a joke on The Simpsons, what if someone did make a video game out of this?  Surely that would be better than another bad FPS clone?  Imagine if just a fraction of the time and money that went in to developing the dreadful Duke Nukem Forever had instead been used to create My Dinner with Andre.  Tell me more, indeed.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Hell is Somewhere Between Seattle and Tacoma

After standing in a computer lab for four hours this afternoon teaching econometric sections, I stepped outside to walk back to my apartment.  I had an hour and a half to finish packing before I had to leave for the airport.  As soon as the fresh air hit me, I knew agreeing to go to this conference was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made.  It had to have been raining when I agreed to attend, because giving up a perfect Oregon summer weekend is no small sacrifice.  All I wanted to do was ride my bike, and then lie lazily in the grass as the sun set.

Instead I had to cram onto a tiny prop plane, whose seats were uncomfortable even by airplane standards.  By the time I cleared airport security, I had a new wish: if I couldn't be riding my bike, I at least wanted to fly to Massachusetts and hug my mom.  Seattle has neither bikes nor mothers (well, it has a lot of both, but not mine), and my schedule won't even allow me to catch a Mariners game.

Arriving in Seattle, the weather was perhaps even more perfect than it had been in Eugene, which only made me feel worse.  Is a little rain too much to ask for?  My hotel was only about a mile from the airport, so I figured I'd take this small opportunity to be outdoors and walk.  Let me tell you, the Seattle airport has been designed to make it as difficult as humanly possible to escape on foot.  After walking around for 20 minutes trying to find a way out, I nearly gave up and was resolved to take the hotel shuttle, when I noticed my hotel shuttle pulling away without me.  So much for that option.  It only took another 15 minutes for me to finally make my way out to the street with a sidewalk.  It really should not have been that difficult, but clearly the hotel shuttle people lobbied hard to keep themselves in business.  There were shuttles that were literally just ferrying people across the street.  It should have been a 3 minute walk from the airport, and instead, it became a 15 minute wait, and a 5 minute shuttle ride.

When I finally made it to the street, I felt a sense of relief.  The weather was amazing, and even if the scenery left a little something to be desired, it was still nice to be going for a walk.  As I started at the airport, I was surrounded by newly built hotels, freshly manicured lawns, and a road adorned with trees.  It was as scenic as an airport strip could possibly be.  Over the course of my walk, things became gradually less... nice.  When I finally reached the block where my hotel was, it abruptly took a turn for the worse.  The hotels became older and more rundown, the cars needed body work, and the trees stopped, and were replaced by drug dealers.  I had clearly crossed onto the wrong side of the tracks, or, at least, I would have, if only this neighborhood could afford train tracks.  But I was serious about the drug dealers.  As I was walking, a young man loitering called to me.  I assumed he was going to ask for money, but when he didn't, I ran away, because if he wasn't asking for money, my next best guess was that he was planning on taking my money.  A few minutes later, I realized I should have stopped and talked to him, because he was probably just selling drugs.  Though I wouldn't be interested in any of his wares, I should at least be aware if I'm staying in a weed neighborhood or a crack neighborhood.

I made it to my hotel.  It was old, run down, and smelly--the kind of place you'd be too ashamed to take your prostitute.  This was only my second experience ever booking my own hotel.  The first time was for Jen's wedding, when I foolishly booked the worst-reviewed one-star hotel in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.  That one actually worked out remarkably well, because despite its poor reviews, it really wasn't that bad.  The neighborhood had the outward appearance of sketchiness, but ultimately felt completely safe.  Here in Seattle, it's just the opposite.  I should feel safe here, but I don't.  The hotel got better reviews, but has a much worse odor.  I wish I didn't feel so much like Br'er Rabbit when my hotel is a smelly dump.

By the way, this is as good an opportunity as any to remind you all of the wonderful experience that was Jen's wedding.  My blog recap of the events can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Highlights include a picture of me in my underwear taking a picture of Sheehy in his underwear holding a bottle of wine in a shoe and this great segment from Sheehy's recap: "One of the greeters was a young lady doing her damndest to make sure everyone knew she had breasts. They were nice breasts, and in general went with the rest of her. I actually find such physical self-aggrandizing when already hot to be redundant, and therefore a little intellectually off-putting, but as a straight male, such conclusions are required to follow at least a few minutes of oggling.  Mahoney was oblivious to her, as her companion was holding the leash to Jen and CJ's dog Seamus."  Oh god, that was a wonderful trip, and its memories are the only thing keeping me together right now.

After getting to my room and unpacking (read: dumping all my clothes on the floor), I decided to look for some food.  The food options were numerous, but not particularly desirable.  After all, this is a neighborhood that's too dumpy for hookers.  Nearby, I had my choice of Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, or Denny's.  I haven't been to Denny's since my dad flew me out to Oregon, and it wouldn't be the same without him.  I ventured a little bit further, towards the nicer hotels, to see if they had any places that served real food.  I found one nice looking restaurant, but after noticing that the first item on the menu was a $40 steak (and even the chicken sandwich was $20), I decided I'd head back to Crackton and eat at the Jack in the Box.

Now, I know it's been a long time since I've eaten at a fast food restaurant, but I swear the "medium" drinks just keep getting larger.  I believe the cup holds 32 ounces, which, when loaded up with soda, contains upwards of .37 diabetes.  I filled it about a quarter of the way with diet coke, and took two straws, because the only other times I'd ever ever drink fountain soda was after watching a movie with my dad, we'd go get pizza and split a Diet Coke.  But when all was said and done, I actually had to take the cup and bring it back to my hotel just so I could take a picture of it for reference.

Jack in the Box cup.  Pictured: Homer Simpson for size reference.

Also, I had to stop at the 7/11 because I forgot to pack toothpaste.  They had two options, mini toothpaste, and mini toothpaste with a mini toothbrush.  Both were the same price.  I'd have been a fool not to get the mini toothbrush too.
Good dental hygiene is my last grasp on humanity.
And now I'm off to bed.  I have my alarm set for 6:00AM, so I can wake up and get out of this place as early as possible.  Maybe things will be nicer once I make it to downtown Seattle because right now, I'm really starting to regret agreeing to that fiddle challenge last week.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Will everyone whose father is still alive, please take one step forward...

...Not so fast, Mahoney.

What a great mustache.  What a great man.

So this was a really weird week.  When last I posted, my dad's health had been declining rapidly, and yet I was still completely unprepared for just how quickly things would progress.

Though I had a flight scheduled for June 17, Monday morning, my mother sent me an urgent e-mail highly suggesting that I not wait that long.  I might be a horrible person in most of my life, but I'm a pretty good son, so Tuesday morning Ty was up at 4:15AM to drive me to the airport.  Aside from having less than 24 hours advanced notice, it was a fairly routine trip from Eugene to San Francisco to Philadelphia to Hartford.

On my flight from Philadelphia to Hartford, my day got a bit of a lift from the delightful flight attendant.  He was a middle-aged Hispanic man with a mustache, and his sharp wit was the last line of defense against incompetent travelers.  He was making snide comments over the intercom as various passengers tried and failed to put their bags into the overhead compartment, but the real payoff came during beverage service.  He was walking down the aisle holding a large tray with drinks to distribute to the passengers.  In the middle of this, an older gentleman pulled out an empty soda bottle and tried to pass it to the flight attendant, saying "could you take this?"  Now, this was a ridiculous request as obviously the flight attendant had his hands full (literally) with the task at hand.  Now, a "normal" flight attendant would probably say something like "my hands are full right now, but I'll be back to get that for you shortly."  Not this guy... this guy had the snappy comeback (said in such a polite, yet condescending tone), "and where would you like me to put it, on my head?"  I tip my mustache to you, Mr Flight Attendant.

Under normal circumstances, that would have been the highlight of the blog post, but these were not normal circumstances.  My mother and sister picked me up from the airport and took me straight to the hospital to see my dad.  Though just the week before he had sounded perfectly normal on the phone, by the time I made it to the hospital, things weren't looking good.  His energy was very low, and he had trouble keeping his eyes open.  He insisted he could listen to us talk, but he could rarely muster up the strength to say more than a few words.  He was also in visible discomfort, which was unsettling, since the day he sliced his finger off with the table saw, he came home with a smile on his face (after a brief stop at the hospital to re-attach the finger).  As much as I loved seeing him, it was very clear from the state he was in that he wasn't going to be able to last much longer... and, at that moment, I think it became clear that I didn't want him to last much longer.  I loved him, and wanted him to be around forever, but that was no longer an option, and so the next best thing was to avoid the prolonged agony of a slow death.

I managed to keep my composure until later that night, at home, when I hugged my mom and cried for longer than I could keep track of.

The next day, we went to the hospital to see him in the morning.  A variety of other visitors came, but my father remained largely passive and minimally engaging.  It was nice to see some of his friends, who had nothing but wonderful things to say about him, but also hard to see him in such a state.

I would also like to include a tremendous thank you to Khiet, whose extremely thoughtful care packaged arrived as my sister and I were leaving the house to go to the hospital in the morning.  It had made it across the country nearly as quickly as I had, and was a bright spot on my morning.

The only four things I'll ever need.

Later that night, like the day before, my mom ended up crying and hugging for longer than I could keep track of.

Thursday was an incredible day.  My sister and I arrived at the hospital in the morning and my dad was like his old self.  He was laughing, joking, and engaging in conversation.  I barely even remember what we talked about, because aside from the hospital bed, it just felt like any other conversation we might have with him.  The pain medication seemed to finally have things under control, and so in the evening, he was discharged from the hospital and sent home.  That evening, it was just the four of us in the house again.  My dad spent most of the time in bed, but we joined him in there to watch Jeopardy.  Then he got up to check his e-mail and went to bed.

It was a strange evening; it felt almost... normal.  Dad was in bed asleep, the other three of us were up and about for a few more hours.  I even tried to go to bed without crying on my mom's shoulder.  That didn't work, so I got out of bed, and she gave me one of my dad's sweaters to put under my pillow.*

*In case you were ever wondering the moment when Me-From-The-Future started wearing sweaters, I think this is it.

8 or so hours later, I woke up to the sound of crying from outside my room.  I guess I didn't find that too unusual, though at the point when my mother opened up my door, I immediately knew what had happened.  It didn't take long before the tears were flowing, and they weren't about to stop for the next couple of hours. I put on some clothes and went downstairs.  When I got down there, I saw a family friend whom I hadn't known was going to be there (and was just coincidentally stopping by to drop off some muffins).  She never would have been my first thought for a person to have around moments after learning of my dad's passing, but she turned out to be absolutely amazing, both in terms of helping with logistical details, and just to have another shoulder to cry on.

Speaking of logistical details, I really must tip my hat to the wonderful people at hospice.  When my mom called them this morning, a nurse came over and immediately began taking care of business.  It was odd having a stranger in the house at a time like this, but what a relief to have someone who knew all the steps that needed to be done, and how to do it.

From that point on, as word spread, friends of my father and of the family began stopping by the house.  They cried, and laughed; told stories, ate food, and drank beer.  This continued for the next 12 hours or so, and it was really an incredible experience.  Hearing wave after wave of person come in and say nice things, tell funny stories, and just be around talking about things that often had nothing to do with my father was a reminder--if nothing else, that he only chose to be friends with the most wonderful of people.

As the day went on, there were fewer and fewer tears and more and more smiles.  The whole experience was incredibly therapeutic.  As strange as it is to say, today was actually a really good day.  We knew he was going to die, and so it was really only a matter of how, and honestly, it couldn't have been much better than this.  Thursday was a good day.  He was able to interact with his children just like his old self.  He was able to come home from the hospital, and be in his bed.  He was able to be with his family, in the closest thing to "normal" that could have been.  With the cancer looming, things really weren't about to get much better than they were that day, and so rather than drag on the pain and uncertainty, he was able to go quickly when the moment was right.

And that was what we all needed... we needed a good family day together.  After that, the next day, was just an overwhelming outpouring of love and support.  Sure we were all sad, we all missed him, we all wished we could have him around in the future, but this was a group of people who had been carefully chosen by my father over the years.  Bringing all these wonderful people together to say wonderful things about my father was nice.  It reminded me of all the great moments he and I had ourselves.  And sure, I think about all the things he won't be there for... he won't be there to give me advice when I need to buy a house*, he won't ever get to know his grandchildren (should grandchildren ever materialize), he'll never live to see Yuji marry that girl from Ohio.  I could think of myself as being unlucky that my dad won't be around for any of that, but I'd much rather think of myself as being lucky for having such a wonderful dad for as long as I did.  Thinking about good times and funny stories made me feel better.  I will always miss him, and I will likely cry a lot more in the next few days, but the joy of my father's life is really overwhelming the sadness of his absence in my heart right now.

*In our family, dad was always the one we turned to for advice--particularly about practical matters. Just last week, I called him up to ask for his advice on a situation with my landlord.  Now, I probably knew how to handle it on my own, but it was comforting to hear his take.  One of the interesting things, talking to all his friends, was how many of them also liked to turn to him for practical advice. He was smart, knowledgeable, and trustworthy, and it was always reassuring to run a problem by him.

Now, it's 3am; after all the activity of the day, I'm absolutely exhausted right now, and I'm not even the one who died.  I'm awake and writing... in part because I need to write about this, in part because I have a bit of a stomach ache.  There was food put out for all the guests, and the guests themselves brought even more (mostly baked goods).  I spent the day nibbling on chips, cookies, pretzels, cakes, and danishes.  There's an important lesson in all of this: next time my dad dies, I really need to make sure to eat better.

A few other observations from this experience:

My mother is funnier when she's sad.  Us Mahoneys are known for our ability to laugh and joke about anything, but my mother's jokes are typically characterized by poor timing and screwed-up punchlines.  What's surprising is that when she's sad, she actually becomes really funny.  Crying-Mom told a few zingers that Normal-Mom never would have been able to pull off.  It's really quite comforting.

In one particularly poignant moment, I was talking with a family friend who also happens to be a psychiatrist who specializes in end-of-life treatment.  One comment he made to me was that it was really a good thing that I saw him suffering when I first came back, because it made it easier for me to let him go.  He was absolutely right.  On Thursday, my experience with my dad was absolutely great.  He was really himself, and we got to appreciate life with his.  If that was what I first came home to, I would have absolutely wanted more of that.  I really did to see him suffering Tuesday night to understand just what he was going through.  Though he appeared "better" on Thursday, it was just the medication masking his pain more effectively.  But we knew, he wasn't getting better.  On the inside, he was still suffering at least as much as he appeared to be on Tuesday.  I had to see that to understand.  I had to know that it really was his time to go, and as good as things felt the day before, they simply couldn't go on forever.

Just a few more pictures of him, because I can't look at enough of them lately.

My dad was never fond of praise, and he'd probably be uncomfortable with this much attention, but that's too bad, because I need this.  I know there are many ways in which I take after him, but after today, it sure makes me wish it were more.  So much of what I like about myself was clearly inherited from him, and so much of what I don't like about myself could be fixed if only I were more like him (my lack of mustache is really shameful).  I don't know if anything in my life has ever motivated me to be a better person more than today.  And the thing is, for all I write, I find myself unable to put into words just what it was about him that was so wonderful.  But that's really what made today such a great day; there was never a need to explain--everyone here already knew.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Eugene, Oregon

I was leaving the grocery store earlier this evening.  Just ahead of me there was a college student.  He was tall, and kind of pudgy, with a face that seemed to indicate that he wasn't particularly bright.  He had left the grocery store with nothing but a six pack of beer (glass bottles, of course), and he was getting ready to bike home.  He awkwardly mounted his bike while holding the beer, since he had neither rack nor backpack to help him with his cargo.  He made it out of the parking lot and about two feet into the street when the beer slipped out of his hand, and came crashing to the pavement.

Realizing what a mess he had made, he did the only reasonable thing: surveyed the wreckage, grabbed the two bottles that hadn't cracked, and biked away leaving a cardboard box, broken glass, and a lot of spilled beer sitting in the middle of the road.  At this point, a couple of bums who had been loitering nearby walked over and picked up the trash that he had left behind.

This scene summed up life in Eugene better than anything I could have possibly imagined: clueless, irresponsible  college students, and environmentally conscious bums everywhere, patrolling the streets to keep them clean.  After all, they've got to sleep there tonight.