Sep 4, 2010

Life, Balanced On Wheels

In any parent's life there are milestones. They seem to come fast and furious after your little one first enters your life: birthdays, first steps, first words, there's always another first. As they get older the birthdays still come, but the big milestones start, thankfully, to slow down a little, but by the same token they seem to get BIGGER.

My only begotten daughter is at that stage. Her last big milestone was last year, starting high school. Attendant to that milestone was one other: learning how to drive. Now, I've taught folks to drive before. Heck, I've taught a number of people how to drive motorcycles, and that takes some doing. I've even taught a handful of folks how to drive vehicles with clutches, so I'm no stranger to Driver's Ed. Until it was my daughter behind the wheel.

What is it that changes when it's YOUR child you're teaching? What happens to all that objectivity, that calm, controlled Teacher Mode. Right out the electric window.

We started out easily enough: short trips down the driveway, across thirty feet of quiet country road and down a gravel road to my brother's driveway and back again. Then Driver's Ed in school, and today, today we had a milestone: her first time on the highway. I would have written about this early this morning after we got home but my hands were shaking too violently. Don't get me wrong, she did fine, for a new driver. She used her turn signals appropriately. She parked well. She even merged into speeding traffic for the first time. Thing is, she is like any new driver: hesitant, and hesitating in Louisiana traffic is liable to get you crushed underneath a four-wheel drive truck. But, she did it. Several big driving milestones passed.

Allow me now to diverge just a little bit.

If you've read this blog more than twice you know I utterly adore motorcycles. I've ridden since 1992 and have never regretted a moment I've spent on two wheels, which is more than I can say for my life on four. When I was in servitude to The Giraffe there were several of us who rode, but there was one guy, Dan, who was The One on a motorcycle. He was one of those guys who was born in the saddle. He could ride a bike backward, blindfolded, while juggling a bowling ball, a tiki torch and an infant child, and do it well. He was just that good. I think the only thing that stopped him from having a career as a professional motorcycle racer is that he was a little bit on the heavy side. Which was probably caused by the munchies he often had as a byproduct of the truly astounding amounts of pot he consumed daily.

But, bong notwithstanding, I decided that my child would grow up with a bike too, if she wanted. Her first ride on a bike occurred while she was in utero, and probably her hundredth ride also occurred before she ever opened her eyes to daylight. When she was born I'd make little vroom-vroom noises to her to soothe her to sleep. I thought long, hard and often about buying her one of those tiny little Honda Z50 dirt bikes to ride in the back yard, but finances and family pressure nixed that pretty fast. I quickly found out that in Louisiana a child had to be eight years old before they could passenger on a motorcycle, but when that milestone birthday came riding on the back of a bike was nixed again. Undaunted, I kept at it. Every once in a while I'd bring it up, but it kept getting knocked down.

Actually most of it came from the wee child herself. She is, oddly enough, a lot like me. She's retiring, quiet, and would much rather see someone else burst their skull open before trying to leap off the roof herself, so clambering on the back of a motorcycle, even with her dear old Da simply didn't rank high on her Must Do List. Me being me, I never forced her. I knew that when I was a kid and was forced to do something I soon came to hate it, and I'd sworn never to do that to my child. So, she didn't ride, and I let that little flame of hope gutter pretty low.

Until today. I decided, and told her as much, that since she'd tortured me by making me ride around with her while I ran my errands in town (Co-Op, bank, library) I was in turn going to torture her by making her ride with me to Wal-Mart, the one trip we'd forgotten in our haste to get back in time for lunch at Grandma's. So, on went the Missus' new helmet and her yellow and black riding jacket, on went the tall leather boots, and out we went to Sally.

I gave her the usual pointers that I give any new rider who decides to passenger with me: "This is hot, don't touch. Don't put your feet down EVER. Hands here, back pressed against that, don't spit without raising your visor first." And we rolled out.

I stopped at the end of the lane just in case she'd changed her mind or had peed on my seat or something. When I asked her if she was okay she replied with a sardonic "Yes, Dad" and so we went on. Ten gentle minutes later taking helmets off at our local Wal-To-Wal Mart I asked her the all important question. "Well? How was it?" Now in total truth I expected to hear "Meh," or "It's okay." What I got was "It's so cooooooool!"


So, our next stop after jabbering about motorcycles all through Wal-Mart (and don't think I wasn't the PROUDEST papa there--gear on, helmet in hand, and my daughter equally attired, helmet in HER hand) was right up the road at the local bike shop. I had the tremendous pleasure to introduce her to Miss Johnnie, the wonderful old lady who answers the telephones there, who remembers me working there the FIRST time, almost fifteen years ago, when my child was still in my arms. Then we looked at swag. She tried on jackets, and we talked about leather versus textile versus the perforated stuff. We covered the absolute necessity of armor, and the ins and outs of wearing that gear in Louisiana summers. We even peeked in the displays at a few helmets, but our local motoshop is pretty slim on swag, and the only women's helmets they stock run to pink and flowery, which is NOT my daughter's taste. Oddly enough even the pink and white Icon Motorsports jacket with the glittery stars on it was scoffed at, even though it fit her pretty decently.

Then came the fun part. Trying on motorcycles. Oh, I'm in no position to buy her even the smallest street bike now, and she's quite a few thousand miles in a car shy of hitting the tarmac on two wheels, but it's in her near future. She told me as much. Getting back on Sally to leave Wal-Farce she stated it. "Daddy, I want a bike." Simple as that, and her tone brooked no refusals. In the face of that much determination, determination that seemed awfully familiar to this old man, I did the only thing I could do.

I said "Okay!"

We scoffed at the scooters. We rolled our eyes derisively at the wide selection of used Harleys. We gazed longingly at some of the big touring bikes (well, I did) and we gazed longingly at some of the factory customs. Then we got serious and let her try the Kawasaki Ninja 250 for size, which now looks like a full-on crotch rocket, way to go Kawi design team! We also let her settle onto a little black Honda Rebel 250. Both fit her pretty decently, she's got decent leg length, but she made her papa proud when she returned to the little black and chrome Rebel.

A cruiser, just like her dear Papa. Aaaah, it does my heart good. I would have liked her to try out the Star 250 also, which I just found out Yamaha DOES in fact make for this year, but yet again my motodealer failed me by not having one on the floor. Ah well. Maybe a road trip to Natchitoches is in order, to see if my beloved Honda Village has one on the showroom.

Guys, watch out. The next generation of my family is ready to embrace life on two wheels, and she's not gonna play around. Just like her proud father.

Aug 29, 2010

The Knowledge To Practically Apply Basic Principles of Hydrodynamics In A Real World Situation:

I haz it.

When it rains outside, it's hard to tell from inside my house unless you look out a window or the dogs suddenly demand to be let in and arrive soaked to the skin, grinning and shaking. This house simply doesn't let a lot of noise in. At night storms can come and go and not ever be noted. Last night was not one of those nights, nor was it one of those storms.

Around 5 this morning I lay in bed, warm and safe and dry and deeply asleep until outside it began to sound like Katrina had decided to make her five year anniversary reappearance a day late. Lightning struck two pecan trees in the back yard and violently crashed and boomed every few minutes. A peek out the window revealed a sky that stayed lit with what I think was heat lighting because it was as rapid and jittery as a poor B-movie special effect, sans thunder. The rain? The rain was coming down with such ferocity that it seemed like we had built our house under a waterfall. I could see the silver sheen from each lightning flash reflected in the yard, quickly becoming a near solid sheet of water, and the constant impact of the rain turned it into a constantly-dancing sheet of tiny mountain peaks and valleys.

I could have gone into the garage and watched it for hours, truth be told.  And after it had passed I could have stayed even longer.  There's something about running water that enthralls me. Be it the ocean and its ceaseless tides, the roar of clear mountain water over rocks in a river, the meandering flow of icy cold spring water down a pebbled creek bed or the ponderously slow movement of a muddy bayou, running water draws me like iron fragments to a lodestone.

When I was a little kid, a yard-filling quantity of rain would mean that I would be spending the entire next day knee-deep in the ditches with a semi-straight stick used as a gondolier's pole and a piece of interestingly decayed post used as a boat. I'd be most of the day wading around in the currents and eddies of the ditches around the house, directing my imaginary sailors on their way into every bay, inlet and white water I could get it fit into. Some part of me would be watching the water run brown from the fields, mixing with the clear runoff from the yard, and all tumbling excitedly down the various bends until it ran off our property and into the neighbor's ditch. When my craft reached that point I'd turn my ponderous wooden ship about, fire up the engines and push our way back upriver, the water breaking excitingly over the bow until I could find a spot where my deep draft ship could turn again, and point her nose back into the rills that would pull her inexorably downriver.

This morning though, a boat wasn't primary on my mind. Dealing with the inevitable mess after a huge rain storm was. The culverts were clogged with detritus--pine needles, bits of bark, squirrel-gnawed cones, dead leaves, branches and a vast Sargasso Sea of grass clippings thanks to yours truly working so hard to mow Saturday. A quick glance down to the other end of our little country lane showed me just how much rain had fallen in a very short time--the road was sheeted over with water in the two lowest places, which means the people foolish enough to buy the brand new crackerjack-box houses that were built in a low-lying ex-cotton field had, if wise, already stacked sandbags in front of their doors and were ready with pumps and buckets and towels inside. Trucks and cars were stopped in the street door to door; homeowners who were not smart enough to ask anyone who'd lived here more than two years if this was a flood-prone area, and surly husbands living the country life were patrolling up and down the lane on four-wheelers, as though burning up some gas and making a useless racket would help the water evacuate their home theaters and their now-sunken living rooms.

But, that wasn't important either. Damage done, and honestly, not my problem. My own house doesn't flood, wisely being situated a number of feet above the low fields and having wide ditches. What was important to me was clearing my wide ditches out so the water could move...well, to be quite frank, could move down there to those flooded houses and that massive slue of a former field, where it has always gone. Water as we all know is going to seek out the lowest place to be, and I had every intent to make sure what amount was standing in my yard would be allowed to join its hydrous kith and kin down at the low end of Schoolhouse Rd.
So, out came the rake and the shovel, and I got to work pulling sodden piles of organic waste out of culverts and the ditch across the frontage of my house and my uncle's house next door. The water had just receded from the level of my driveway, and pulling out forty cubic yards of drowned pine tree waste started the water flowing rapidly and I could see that it had dropped off a bit even as I worked. I waded into the ditch knees-deep with the shovel and started digging out soaking wet mulch, rotten leaves the colour of peat, all sitting in the bottom of the ditch slowly composting into the soil. Piling it on the ditch banks the water sped up more and more until the water started to surpass my knees and threaten my shorts, and the miniature river between my ditch banks began to gurgle and rill in earnest, passing over exposed pine tree roots and tiny crescent-shaped bays where my shovel had bit deeper than I intended.

The once-clear water was running rich brown as well, looking for all the world like a child's 1/48th scale model of the Red River, all clay and rich sediment. I'm sure my neighbor, his own low-lying trailer situated in, of all places, a corner of his father's low-lying cotton field will appreciate the rich brown stain of clay that will no doubt be left after the water finally leaves his yard in a day or so. I'm certain he'll love the acre-wide, solid sheet of pine cones, bits of branches, grass clippings and sodden leaves that were disturbed and washed downriver from my own ditch, as chained to the natural power of running water as any antediluvian patriarch.

Hey, not my fault. If the lazy, drug-abusing wife-beating piece of shite had gotten up this morning he easily could have cleared his own (underwater) driveway and culvert of the filth that was already there, thereby allowing the water to leave his own yard much faster. Heck, I slept in VERY late this morning, until almost 9am, so he had plenty of time, and I know full well he slept a lot less easy than I did in his single-wide.

Regardless, the water has subsided now. The fiercely dry ground drank up the flood as fast as it could, and now my yard holds just a few isolated pockets of clear, shimmering water, rather than being a sheet of shimmering water holding a few pockets of green grass as it was this morning. The ditches are nearly empty, the fields having finally dispersed and hungrily sucked down the remainder of the flood. Too late to go find an interestingly rotted piece of post and a long, semi-straight pole.

Aug 19, 2010

Of Rain and Time and Travel

There's so much I want to tell you, and so little time. Also, so little focus. Focus, you see, has become a rare commodity in the person of your singular writer.

I want to tell you about traveling to Colorado. I want to tell you about my first train ride, behind a gorgeous streamliner F-unit engine. I want to tell you about meeting new friends and about eating new food and about breathing air at 10,000 feet above sea level. I want to tell you about work and about play and about Weerelephant using my old 35mm camera as her own. But maybe later. After I've had more time to let the jostling, jumbled up images and thoughts settle into a coherent whole.

How about I tell you about the cicadas?

There's a few things in anyone's life that you can point to and say "their life seems to revolve around that thing." A point of reference, a common thread that runs through their lives. Cicadas are one of those points of reference for me.

I spent my entire childhood and my adulthood thus far around them. Their sharp, angular songs lull me to sleep at night, and their presence in the air makes me think of my childhood--long hot summer days and long humid summer nights. I spent entire summers filling paper grocery bags with discarded shells carefully harvested from every tree I could find. The first summer I traveled to Oregon I lay awake on a soft mattress with the windows open and I could not sleep. I lay there and fretted and wondered until I realised: I couldn't hear cicadas. I spent a magnificent three hour flight on an airplane sitting beside a beautiful young woman who had come down from Washington for a job, who explained to me that she lay awake at night and wondered what that horrific sound in the trees was. I spent an inordinate amount of time extolling the virtues of those little green shrieking bugs.

Such an odd little thing. Born from an egg dropped from a branch they immediately dig into the earth to eat soft fresh roots. There they live and grow for up to seventeen years, hidden from the sun and the fresh air and the rains. That strange little lovely insect lies in the ground for seventeen years, then one day a bright spark in them says "DIG." They dig their way up and they find themselves on the surface and that bright spark in them says "CLIMB." They look for a place to climb. A tree. A bush. Anything vertical will do, they just know they have to climb. They find their vertical place and they climb and claw and work their painstaking, dirt-covered way up until something inside them says "STOP" and they stop, and get a good grip.

They spread their legs wide, dig sharp claws into whatever surface they're on, and they start pushing. They arch their backs and push and strain with everything they have in them until their old, restrictive, clear skin cracks down the back and then they're struggling, fighting, straining to get out before they lose all their strength and die there, half in, half out. When I was a kid I'd find perhaps one each summer like that--trapped in the opening of that old skin, legs still pushing even in death, forever tied to both the old life they just left and the new one they never quite began. I used to be so terribly saddened when I'd see them like that.

But sometimes I'd get to see one free of its old skin, clinging with delicate legs to that old husk, the discarded past, their old home for seventeen years living blindly underground, digging in the dark, never knowing what lay just above them. They'd be hanging there, a shade of pale green so faint that they almost looked white. They'd have their long, tapered wings held straight behind them, drying in the morning air, and if you waited long enough their pale damp white-green would slowly change to a deep emerald colour, and their soft, pliant bodies would dry and they'd be wrapped in vert armor, patterned with sable, hanging like a tiny droplet of potential in the soft dawn air.

They're singing right now. That sharp, vivid summer sound, right outside my window, filling the trees with night music. I'm going to sleep good tonight knowing they're out there, making tiny eggs that will drop from the tree limbs like miniscule raindrops, to seep into the earth and not to be seen again for seventeen years.

Jun 4, 2010

Work Hijinks

HAMLET: How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

I swear, going over reams and reams of clinical data every day I see some stupid stuff. Some days though the stupid stuff really goes well beyond stupid and trips lightly into that ethereal realm of things that are genuinely funny but in a really sad and pathetic way.

Our physical therapists, when doing an initial evaluation for a new patient have in their forms a tool called a "Fall Risk Assessment." It's just like it sounds--an assessment of a person's risk of falling, or falling again. I found this in an evaluation today. The agent's text is in all caps because they all type that way:

Assessment of Fall History:
Where did the fall occur: FELL DOWN SOME STAIRS
What was the patient doing when the fall occurred: WALKING DOWN THE STAIRS

Wow. You don't say. I thought for sure the agent was going to say this elderly lady was launching her two-man glider.

I swear, Tracy and I laughed for several hours solid over this one. I don't know if it's funny because I'm freaking exhausted or because it really IS funny. You tell me. Me and my hundred hour two-week pay period are going outside to smoke a cigar.

May 31, 2010

Unable To Stop

Hello, my name is Irrelephant, and I'm not addicted to much.

I know, the post title sort of implies that I'm an addict but this isn't going to be me spilling my guts about my drug, sex, gambling or high-speed race car addiction. Maybe next time.

No, this is more in the line of walking somewhere with my head down, not paying attention to anything in the world but my goal, not noticing the cliff that is right in front of my feet until I'm falling, guts floating with fear, and nothing to look forward to but the sudden and violent stop at the end.

I wasn't always the sort of person to hold a grudge. They take too much energy, too much valuable time. Nor am I really the sort of person to stop talking to someone over anger or an argument, or someone to have a grudge held against me but somehow as I've grown older I've had several opportunities to be thus engaged. I've been lucky enough out of the three active non-speaking relationships I've endured to have healed one. One is out of the question, and is a better fit than healing the gap. The third 'fix' came as a fall off a cliff.

I was in Hobby Lobby after a day of not quite hitting my stride. You've had those days, right? The sorts of days where it seems that you woke up a second later than the universe had intended you to, so you seem to be missing everything by just a hair. Nothing seems to work quite right--you miss traffic lights by moments, you seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and everything about you seems just slightly off, not quite in sync with the rest of the world. Like a voice track in an old movie that doesn't perfectly match up, you can follow along perfectly well but the sensation is discordant at best.

The whole day I'd been just half a beat off, but the morning of shopping was winding down, and on the whole we had made more refunds than purchases, so it seemed okay. The Missus and I went to Hobby Lobby to buy some picture frames (40% off, score!) and I needed to pick up a tube of Winsor & Newton Lamp Black oil paint in the big 10 oz tubes I favor. We began threading our way through the packed aisles and I left the Missus at the frames section while I made my rapid way to the lieu.

I headed back to my destination via the model train aisle--I love looking at the tiny N and HO scale engines, the tiny crossing gates, the tiny scale people the height of a fingernail. I circled around that aisle to cast my eye over the scale model aircraft and cars, more out of force of habit than any real buying desire--I've a closet half-full of unbuilt scale models. I circled around another aisle to look at a pretty girl who was looking at the DIY jewelry, and I headed down the paint and brushes aisle, eyes focused on the Winsor & Newton rack rather than the three or four people cluttering the aisle.

Remember in the first Matrix movie when the black cat walked by our heroes, then walked by again, and Neo said, woodenly "Uh...deja vu." Trinity explained that as someone mucking about with the Matrix itself, changing something. I didn't see a black cat, but I should have, because I'm certain the Universe was tugging some strings pretty darn hard to place me there at that exact moment.

I digress a moment:

A brief synopsis. I'd just divorced. I was single, alone, my daughter in my ex's questionable care. I was lonely, scared, unsure. So, I seized the outstretched hand of a friend who lived about 120 miles south, in Baton Rouge. He was single, intelligent, creative, and a good friend to help you forget about your woes. I spent several months of weekends driving down to Baton Rouge to stay with this friend, travel around, ride bikes all over town and country, tour the USS Kidd which he was a tour guide on, and in general try and fail miserably and repeatedly to pick up girls.

It helped me get through a very bad time. That friendship was very like Holmes and Watson, with me in the role of the Good Doctor. He the misogynist, me the lover of women. We grew together, we shared everything. And in synopsis format, when I met a girl we grew strained. There was a threat afoot that he felt would damage us. He refused to put away his hatred of women, and we finally came to a point where I blew up at him and demanded he apologise for what he'd said. He refused, I stopped talking to him.

Fast forward some eight or nine years. He traveled overseas several times with teh military and the last I knew he was in Washington, DC working in a museum. I was living here, making my way.

Until I just about walked over him in the paint aisle of Hobby Lobby. I walked up to the paint, reached down, picked up the tube I wanted and heard my full name called out from about two feet over my shoulder. He had been standing there buying paint brushes, literally directly across the aisle where I was headed, unseeing, focused on the goal only. Right off the edge of the cliff.

The reunion was...strained. We shook hands, embraced one-armed as men will do. We talked briefly, but it was shaky, uncertain, and we both could smell the nervousness on each other, like two leery adult dogs who barely remember being litter mates at one time. He asked about the ballooning, he talked about his own gaining of a pilot's license. I stuttered incoherently a bit, his jitters nearly had him climbing the aisle behind him. He told me he'd moved back home, to the little town next to ours, right across the river. I wasn't sure what to say, just smiled and we parted.

I was shaken for the rest of the day. I don't think buying myself a orchid would have helped that day. Hell, being given a two thousand dollar professional Nikon lens would not have set me right. And here, two days later I'm still reeling a little bit. The Missus says it is time to rebuild the bridge. Me, I'm still not sure it would be the right thing, not sure I want to expose myself to the emotional rigors of that relationship.

So right now, I weigh options, like a wizened old shopkeeper carefully weighing out leaves of gold, trembling hands placing first one, then another in the pan, waiting for the trembling balance needle to hit "0."

We'll see, I suppose. Perhaps after I hit bottom, because right now I still feel like I'm free-falling.