Monday, May 22, 2017

To A Degree

How many times had she been through the dissertation? One might as well ask how many grains of sand were on the Santa Barbara beach the afternoon we flew in for her defense.

The small commuter airliner (redundant?) had barely lifted from the runway before the tray table was down, the markers out. More edits, several margin notes - clarify this, revisit that... There has to be another way to write this. While I gazed at the Earth below and listened to an audiobook, she went over a document she knew well. Only too well.

My friend and mentor told me years ago that writing for publication was an exercise in literary masochism engaged only by intellectuals too obsessive to relent. "By the time your novel is published, you'll recreationally write a horrible death scene for your main character. And then, delete it and move on." It was true.

I watched, fascinated in the between-the-fingers way one views GoPro clips of spectacular Russian highway accidents on YouTube, as my wife began her pursuit of a PhD in Leadership and Change. There was the initial question about acceptance into the University. Technical writing skills needed honing. Residencies, reading, group on-line chats. This person dropped out, that person has moved to candidacy. The dissertation proposal...proposal...proposal. Revise, resubmit, rinse, repeat.

One morning our truck was - literally - idling in the driveway. Bags packed, dogs packed. Somewhere off the coast of Florida a cruise ship made its way to the harbor where we would board. An airplane taxied to the gate, our seat about to be vacated, just for us. Her advisor, on the phone, told her "Take a deep breath, you can do this." And she sent a revised document, closed her computer and rushed for the Tacoma. We raced to the kennel.

And forgot the dog food.

"Advancing to candidacy" is a cruel euphemism drained of the horror in store for the candidate. A committee of kind souls is there to shepherd the soon-to-be doctor through the process. Often, they do so with a carefully studied stoicism, knowing the rigors of preparing the document for a proper defense. Writing, writing, writing. Missed grandkid time, preoccupation, sleepless nights, vacations scheduled around deadlines. Vacations spent in front of a laptop. More reading, more research. As the end nears, less sleep. Indispensable, heart-felt calls from close friends - classmates - urging her on, encouraging her. Commiserating about their own harrowing journey. Finally, the fateful day comes. Get on a plane, and explain why one is deserving of a PhD.

Fewer than half who begin the journey are successful. Two percent of Americans have climbed this mountain, and breathed the rarified air of an achievement so demanding that horribly bright people are routinely denied success.

My wife is one of the graduates. We stood in our kitchen, several days before we flew to Santa Barbara. We stared at each other, and the tears just flowed. Happy tears, proud tears, profoundly respectful at an accomplishment of enormous import tears. She stepped back, threw her arms in the air and yelled "It's going to happen!"

Never in doubt. Nicely done, Doctor Greer.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Cue James Earl Jones

I mean, how would I feel if somebody come runnin' in the gym and bust me in my ass while I'm on the treadmill? Detective Edwards (Will Smith), Men in Black (1997).

I just want to be left alone. I'm an introvert, late middle aged and tired. I have to get some miles in my legs so I can try to keep up with a bike class next month. There is a foot of snow on the ground.

So I make my way to Planet Fitness, dress out and sit on a stationary bike. Perfect, except...

No matter which of the five upright bikes I choose (they don't have spin bikes) I am staring at four TVs, with the following channels:

MSNBC
CNN
Fox
Some business channel

All of them are non-stop politics.

I'm all for being up on political discussion. Facebook friends know that I'll engage from time to time - often succumbing to a contrarian streak a mile wide. Fair enough. But this shit doesn't ever stop!

I get it. This guy's a menace. Well... They all are. And so are you. You are the reason people can't agree. You are telling them 24/7 not to!

This is where I was last week. I had no cell coverage, no FB. (HT Sara Patterson Bright).

I want to go back.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Odd Couple

I took my phone off of airplane mode as we taxied in at Dallas Fort Worth airport. It "exploded," as is the common expression denoting a cacophony of tones and vibrations. I'd received a number of text messages. One, from a cycling companion, gave chilling news.

A friend - a cherished work friend - had taken his own life.

Over the course of the next hour, awaiting our flight to Nassau and vacation, I processed with other men and women who knew my friend well. In the early hours there was little additional information. No explanation.

We taught Report Writing together at the police academy. We had for a number of years. We'd polished and honed, examined and reexamined the curriculum. He called us The Odd Couple. 

I was Felix, fastidious and exacting. He was Oscar in the blue collar sense. It had less to do with our personal preferences and more with our presentation styles. I am contained, controlled. Structured and refined. Liberal polysyllabics, virtually no profanity. Decades in the classroom teaching law has gotten me there.

He was six feet of "In Your Face." He told stories painting with a broad brush. Were it not for a liberal use of profanity he might have been struck mute. He could make a point the way street cops make them - bark on, zero quarter. It was the way he saw it - like it, don't like it...all the same.

Of course, like all couples we fought. Like all writers, too. I'd express a point of order. His eyes would light up, his back straight and he'd take a sip of his omnipresent iced tea. "Oh?" he'd say. But that was never the end. He was profoundly patient with his little friend. He would listen, we would discuss. In the end, it wasn't an uneasy truce. We had an accord.

We would begin every new academy with a story he told, the moral of which was to write good reports. It was of his best friend, a young man with his whole life ahead of him. His friend committed suicide at age 16, something that still haunted him all of those years later.

I thought about that, gazing at the stunning waters off Nassau, Bahamas. Beside me, the love of my life. We touched glasses and made a toast to my friend. When I got home, clearing on-line messages, I found an exchange between my friend and me. Early April, a promise to get together for margaritas and Mexican food. To discuss business, but...also, just 'cause. It would have been today.

Fair winds and following seas, partner.

Do Epic...Stuff

Our Bahama sail aboard the Liberty Clipper defies easy description. It was unlike any vacation we have experienced.

We are veteran “big boat” cruisers, used to the kinds of amenities major lines offer. Options – lots of options, lots of glitz, everything done by crisply-dressed crew members who bring game faces to every encounter. Schedules of events slipped under the door very very AM and adhered to with nautical precision. Port calls done with military efficiency, ashore at zero whatever and don’t be late getting back. The Captain is a voice on the intercom.

Our first impression of Liberty Clipper was of a vessel who spends her days primarily at sea. There was rust. Many of the fittings showed wear and repair – probably multiple times. So many feet, both shod and bare, have walked the deck that the wood is nobly worn in all the right ways, including those imperfections that would be immediately cured on a mega-vessel. The crew had made this a comfortable home, without pretense or affect. If a towel was useful as a shade in a porthole, well that’s what they used.

The week started with a meet and greet, where we were introduced to both crew and guests. Again, zero pretense. Do you want a beer? Let me show you to the ice chest. Snacks? Laid out for the gala, but once underway there are bags of chips and granola bars in a basket. Make yourself a mixed drink in the salon.

The safety briefing was delivered in person by the Captain. No frills, but also no nonsense. This schooner was built to be sailed, not to be ridden. Everything had a purpose, nothing was illusion or sham. Substantial booms moved with heft, thick lines were under tremendous tension. The “ladders” were just that – and we were reminded that “toes grip, heels slip.” We were shown to our cabin by the steward.

We had paid for an upgraded cabin, with our own shower, sink and toilet. Helpful amenities, to be sure, but the quarters were cramped. We found it impossible for two of us to maneuver through dressing – we did it in shifts. Bunk beds, the top narrow and not easy to get to. Experimentation finally led to a solution that could be accomplished in the dark (not using the ladder, on which we hung wet beach clothes). When the company says, “pack a sea bag,” believe that. There are no closets or dresser drawers. There is no AC. Small fans and an overhead hatch provide ventilation.

A few down sides. For some reason, a noxious odor often accompanied running the engines. It dissipated soon enough, but for a while our cabin was unpleasant. Even with a reduced passenger load it was generally difficult to find privacy, as we shared the common areas with off-duty crew. The bilge/sea toilet system was temperamental, needing tinkering to keep things from backing up. Finally, if long, hot, luxuriant showers are necessary to keep a person in good spirits… Look up “Navy shower.”

On our last night aboard, the Captain thanked us for helping to keep the idea of life under sail alive. Truly, it brought tears to my eyes. The whole boat – THE WHOLE BOAT – was about celebrating an intimate relationship with the sea that no mega-monster-floating hotel can replicate. We went places because the wind and the tides were right. We visited stunning beaches on uninhabited islands. We tucked into coves and sheltered anchorages at night surrounded by miles of ocean under a billion stars. We ate meals together, created by crew members (primarily “Mom” and “Dad”) with world class culinary skills. On our anniversary - a pan brownie personalized just for us.

The crew… Dreads, tattoos, bare feet and character. Early in the cruise one of the deck hands engaged the captain (an amazingly experienced, capable and approachable man) in a philosophical math discussion with overtones of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Another answered an innocuous question with such deep thought and conviction I will use his insights to be better at my own job. “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start now” became a rallying call. Beach coconut bocce. An hour discussing Eastern Europe with a crewman who doubled as “Pig Bar” proprietor, with him using the word tautology to describe some of his ink.

We parted at the end as unceremoniously as we’d arrived. But, we were different people than when we first came aboard. This may not be an every vacation. It certainly isn’t for everyone. I have to tell you…

My wife was invited to take the helm under the superb guidance of The Boss. We were “sailing reach before a following sea” in the words of CSN, 4-5 foot waves having a little fun with us. She observed to her mentor that keeping a steady course resembled the firm but soft hands required on horseback. For the next half hour she and our captain discussed that as the ship sailed onward toward Nassau, my wife in total sync with the wind and waters.

Mere money cannot purchase moments like that.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Those Magic Moments

Vacations.

I've been away from Bikecopblog for nearly three weeks, busy with things. We are putting together a web page, which is a lot more work than I thought it would be. Then again, it's probably going to be a lot better than I could have made it, struggling alone. It's something like writing for publication - a demanding, detail-oriented editor always pushes the writer to do better than they could manage on their own. It isn't fun. It works.

We will soon be on vacation, one where we intend to unplug, unwind and unlimber. Vacation...

The best thing about vacation is - everything.

Initial planning, the decision to actually go! For this one we talked at great length before deciding on a windjammer cruise. There were some complications, but they were solved by a simple expedient... American Express.

Packing is an introvert's way of previewing the experience. With each article rolled up and tucked into a cube, one's mind envisions where it will be worn. A "Hawaiian Shirt" for the relaxed dinner (with cocktails). The sun shirt perfect under the bright tropical sun. Flip flops easily shed for the beach. Even the frantic last-minute trip down the checklist only means departure is at hand. Oh - I can explain leaving the unique battery pack in the box on the bed at home. Really.

Departure day is stressful - I won't lie. Weather worries, dogs to their respective caretakers... Once, we got halfway to their destinations when we turned to each other - "Did you put the dog food in the car?" 

Modern commercial aviation is a pain, but they mostly get us where we are going close to right on time. Mostly.

We had booked a week at the Occidental Royal Hideaway, a five-star all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. We had planned no excursions - beach, bar and books (we both ended up reading six or seven). It snowed the morning we boarded the flight, but hell. It snows in Denver. However, the pilots apparently were based in Miami and had little experience navigating the deicing lines. We waited for our turn. We waited some more. We waited for 90 minutes, which was just long enough to miss our connection. So, instead of upscale accommodations, margaritas on the beach and my lovely wife wearing a fabulous summer dress, it was The Bayfield Inn and Suites.  Houston, in the pouring rain.

Suites - ha! We had Sonic, mini bottles of Sutter Home chardonnay and a miserable night's sleep. Honest, the toothbrush they provided had about six bristles.

But... The next day we flew first class to Cancun. Arriving at the resort - isn't it always the best day, checking in at the beginning of a week away? So much possibility, everything fresh and new. One of the staff handed us flutes of excellent champagne, the bell guys left with our luggage and we got through the paperwork in short order. Except - no cheesy plastic bracelet. I inquired.

"Oh, senor," the woman said with a chuckle. "We know who you are."

It was that kind of place. We were greeted by name, taken care of with graciousness and treated to (now) six days of the finest food and wine we could ever imagine. One night, after an extraordinary meal, we decided to follow a piano player as he made his rounds. Formal dining room to lounge area to night-life bar... As the drinks accumulated we unsteadily trailed the fellow, who was dressed in white formal attire - tails, in fact. Only, he appeared to be drunker than we were becoming. No worries, we weren't driving. He played beautifully, the waiters were attentive (Grand Marnier for me, chocolate martinis for her) and finally, we decided to call it a night. Except - "Which one of these eight identical buildings is ours?"

Departure day is sort of a bummer, but it sure is nice to see the dogs and cat. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

To Market, To Market

If you're not familiar with the movie 'Tommy Boy' you may not quite understand the title of this article. Well, basically there's a scene in that movie where Richard (David Spade) is telling Tommy (Chris Farley) that his father could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Selling A Ketchup Popsicle to a Woman in White Gloves, Justin Seeley, (2015).

Some years ago, I tuned in to a discussion by the late, great author Tom Clancy. He had - virtually single-handedly - created the military/political thriller genre during an era when American armed services still existed under the shadow of the Vietnam experience. His servicemen (and women - on one memorable scene from Red Storm Rising an Air Force F-15 Eagle driver with the apropos call sign of "Buns" splashes several bombers and a satellite a generation before the real military allowed women into combat roles) were virtuous, witty and supremely competent. He became an icon of sorts, the military loved him and he catted about in all kinds of regalia as though he had, in fact, filled the roles.

Except - he hadn't.

When the discussion began, it was amazing how reedy and shallow his voice was. He had, as the saying goes, a radio voice made for the newspaper business. Not all gallant warriors sound like Sam Elliott, or Lauren Bacall - given. Clancy sounded downright meek. But, that wasn't the most interesting thing.

His presentation had nothing to do with the military, or descriptions of guns or planes. It was totally about the business of getting published, and keeping the attention of your fans. That's what he found the most compelling part of his art. I turned it off. Who gave a crap about that stuff?

(Sound of throat clearing). Who knew, right?

Now that my novels have been released back to me, it's time to act like the small business person I am. I have engaged Heather Grady at Insit LLC (pronounced insight) to start marketing my writing.

Ketchup popsicle, anyone? 

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Truck Full of Love


Some years ago, I spent the better part of a week cleaning out the home in which my parents had spent the better part of their lives. They had raised three kids, created deep friendships with neighbors and become part of a community that grew from sleepy village to upscale suburb. Age and infirmity led them to sell the two-story colonial my dad affectionately called "Sixty-Three Park Road" and buy a town home. Once they had moved, it was up to my brother and I to sort, to discard and to say the final good byes.

I had finished my part, and stood in the back yard for one last look around. We'd played football there, and I'd broken my arm twice in mishaps. We'd had a hockey rink, and a pool. A maple tree split, and we used the sap to make syrup...which is another story. My dad and I built a deck - the forth or fifth - that finally stood the test of time.

Across the street, there is an elementary school. As I stood, in tears, I could hear the sound of children playing. Laughing, screaming, calling out to each other. It seemed an echo from many years ago, of the accumulated spirits of the love that had occupied every corner of the big house on Park Road.

I felt that again as we said good bye to the house where my wife grew up. With the passing of her father several months ago, she and her siblings, their spouses and children, and our family, had undertaken the daunting task of brushing aside a lifetime of memories, and passing on the structure to someone else.

One afternoon, we stared at a table full of knickknacks. You know - the salt shaker passed at countless family dinners. The dish that had contained mother Jean's special fruit salad. Cups, knives... No one wanted to part with them, but at the same time we all had our own totems, talismans with which we have marked the memorable events of our own lives. We let them go.

Today, we finished the physical task. I stood on the front lawn, and listened.

I heard laughter. Easter, twenty-five years ago, my new in-laws (of two days) had welcomed me, my daughters and my parents into their family. We were embraced by the numerous Carters with their traditional holiday ritual - a squirt gun fight. I'd watched dozens of baseball games on the TV with my mom-in-law, and picked her up there for dozens more. We'd (sons, daughters, husbands and wives) bricked in a corner of the side yard, planted bushes... We watched as our kids, and then our grand kids, grew up far too quickly.

We got into our truck, and drove away. That's what you do. But, we took all of the love we could fit in our hearts with us.