Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thar Be Dragons

"Stephen, we need to get into the basement,” my wife has hold of my hand and is pulling me from Morpheus' embrace, "" I hear the loud roars of angry dragons and whipping winds causing stuff to hit my roof as we plod down the hallway to the sanctuary of the basement. Miraculously, I don't injure my wife or myself as we negotiate the stairs in the darkness, and I'm finally awake by the time the basement door is closed and we think all is well. Having survived the dragons’ attack, we feel brave and decide to peek out the garage door. We experience only blackness and a hard rain, but it is apparent even to me something fantastic has occurred. At first I think I hear the whining of our cat, but when I focus a little more closely, I realize it's a call for help. Mr. Tesla's AC current has deserted us and I rely on Mr. Edison's DC cells to provide light for strapping on boots and raincoat. I make my way into the blackness of an early morning blanketed by a heavy rain, traveling no further than the end of my driveway - it's apparent the dragons’ wrath has left behind devastation.

Climbing over and around trees and debris I make my way toward the cry for help, but for some reason I am suddenly compelled to check on my friend David three doors up from my own. It was not simple finding my way in the dark and it seemed like it was taking forever, when I finally flashed my light through the little windows on his front door and knocked, yelling his name. He answered my call as usual. But this wasn't usual; he had the look of residual terror in his eyes. His house had its kitchen sliced off by a falling tree, but both he and his new wife were unharmed. He wanted help getting a mattress into the basement to protect it from the rain that was pouring through what was left of his roof. Such is the mania caused by Death when he looks in your direction, but decides, "I'm busy right now, I'll come for you another day." Once the mattress was stored safely in the puddles of David's basement, I tried my hand at getting to the cries for help.

Several large trees had fallen on the house; she was pinned between her collapsed ceiling and her bed. Other neighbors had gathered around, all of us wringing our hands, feeling the exquisite pain of helplessness. Her husband was talking to her through a hole in the floor created by a limb of an offending tree, trying to keep her calm while he stood in the damp darkness amongst the debris in his basement. I gave him my flashlight; his flashlight had gone dead, the only known casualty thus far. Defeated, I retreated into the darkness and stumbled home for another flashlight, a towel, and to collect my thoughts. Slightly drier and armed with a fresh flashlight and a sledgehammer, I was determined to get through the front door to provide relief for a woman trapped in her own bed. Such are the thoughts of a fool mentally paralyzed by the anguish of disaster. Passage beyond the front door was impossible, the house violated by multiple large trees. Purpose was restored when someone suggested that removing the trees that blocked our streets would allow passage for police and other first responders. I am competent with my chainsaw.

The day matured and chased away the rain, the sun revealing a clear blue sky. The aftermath of nature’s fury was on display and inspired awe. Before long, volunteers started to show up, offering a hand cutting up the downed trees, meals and bottled water. I was amazed how quickly word spread and help was provided. I was also amazed how quickly the vultures appeared. The neighborhood streets were clogged with people, first just walking by and eventually driving by, gawking at destruction. Hucksters trying to convince me they were "tree surgeons" and “$1,400 per tree was gonna be a bargain, just wait and see.” Of course I told one "surgeon", "these trees are dead, they don't need a surgeon, they need a mortician and because we were so close I'll just bury them myself." When we finally found passage through the clogged streets and escaped the neighborhood for about an hour in search of chainsaw supplies, we returned to the reality that my wife didn't lock her car and now her expensive camera belonged to someone else.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan attacked Pensacola. My friend Don and I borrowed a pick-up and drove through the night so we could join in the relief effort. Armed with chainsaw, food and water, we worked for a weekend and then drove home. A year or so later, Katrina made a mess of Mississippi and Louisiana. Don and I made multiple trips, first into Mississippi, then into Louisiana. Last April, truly devastating tornados cut a path of death and destruction across Alabama and our gang of disaster relief people served the stricken in the Asheville area. All this relief was offered days or even weeks after the event, but the tornado of Monday January 23rd happened in my yard and my neighborhood, and I felt the anxiety of helplessness within minutes of the 4:00am visit of that careless storm. I witnessed the best and worst of humanity within a few hours of the initial chaos, and it has left me with a different perspective toward those that want to help. There are those, like my new friend Adam, who know how to quietly offer assistance. He worked next to me as we cleared downed trees, and when it was time to take a break we talked duck hunting between swigs of cool water. I will live up to the promise I made Adam, to take him skeet shooting next time I have a weekend away from trees lying on the ground. I have infinite respect for the anonymous person or group that left the box of food at our doorstep. But I have to admit I'm starting to suffer from "relief fatigue". I look forward to the weekend when my neighborhood isn't hindered by armies of strangers wanting to feed me or help me with my problems. I yearn for a Saturday I can, without guilt, call Adam and ask, "Wanna go bust some clays?"

Stephen still lives in Paradise Valley along with his wife of 30+ years, who is elated that the hickory trees which used to populate the yard are gone and can no longer torment her with hickory nuts. They enjoy electricity and indoor plumbing, and Stephen is considering a second career as a chainsaw sculptor.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Place from Childhood

Sitting in this spot, a spot which is more cherished today than when I first encountered it, I can see incredible distances. Beyond the distance traversed in mere seconds, time itself is bent to my will. I may choose to visit Disneyland (1964) or Pensacola Beach (1961) complete with the go-kart and paddle boat races. The colors just as vivid, the people restored to youth and vibrancy. One of my personal favorites, the igloo built by piling snow into a huge mound, a hole burrowed for a door, and the inside expanded to create Nanook's nook.

Such is the American Magical Reality of the Bell & Howell slide projector. The first time I encountered my magical spot I was 5 or 6 yrs. old, the spot being the seat next to this wonderful contraption. The whir of the cooling fan laboring to keep the ultra bright bulb from self destruction. The aroma of the heat coming from that bulb, its light focused on the screen which emitted a kind of chemical odor. My father would turn the nob and work the sliding mechanism, projecting the next image onto the screen, providing instant transport to a distant moment in time.

We would gather together, immediate family, extended family, friends and neighbors to view the color images of these captured moments in time magically transported into our living room. We would tell the story of the man that was a dead ringer for Harry Truman, swimming in the same Pensacola waters we swam in. The collective "awww" of adults verifying the cuteness of Stevie and brother Peter, anglers of incredible courage and skill, warmed by the Florida sun and secure in the knowledge that dad was only a few feet away. There is the image of brother Bill, smiling large with vanquished squirrels hanging by their tails in each of his fists. His name sake, Uncle Bill, standing behind him with the knowing look. Always good for a laugh, that one.

I'm a member of a kind of club, I'll call it the Kodachrome Club, connecting me to others of my generation. The phenomena has been documented in song (thank you Paul Simon) and countless nostalgic musings. All the members of the club have their own magic spot where they sat before the conveniently sized stinky white screen, listening to the whir of the fan cooling a really hot bright bulb, enduring the rehashing of family vacations, Christmas mornings, Thanksgiving dinners, various parties and coming of age events. What makes this club so great is there are never any large gathering of its members. Instead we each operate individually, like a terrorist cell, subjecting our victims to the physical demands of time travel and birthday parties.

I was recently listening to "Talk of the Nation-Science Friday". A physicist was explaining that a time machine, if it could be built, wouldn't be able to transport itself (and occupant) back in time beyond the day it was constructed. He obviously isn't a member of the Kodachrome Club. Little does he know of time travel. Members of the "Club" have time machines, these machines make noises and smells and are made up of complex components, controlling these time machines sometimes requires operator technique. The complex components are individual to the operators, each of us having our own slides that transport us to or individual histories.

I worry about my magic place and the time machine that takes me there. Who can I leave it to? My daughter can't be transported to my magic place, she has to find her own magic place. That requires her own version of a time machine, which she carries in her hand and sometimes in her purse. But the day will come when she inherits my time machine. I envision her using the more complex components, the slides, and converting them into something she values. Maybe a lamp shade or a ridiculous dress to be worn on Halloween. The projector and stinky screen are destine to be dumpster fodder. But, if she captures their existence in her time machine, they will live on as she travels to her magic place reliving the events that make her who and what she is. Just as I do, when I am in my magic place.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Trails to you...

On the kitchen table rests, "The Happiness Project" a book by Gretchen Rubin. A quick scan of the cover elicits the cynical thought, "happiness, what a quaint concept!" As I flip through the contents of this book, it dawns on me, this book was placed here as a not so subtle hint. "Please, Stephen, abandon your curmudgeonly ways!", my loving wife's futile plea.

So I sift through this book, hoping for amusement. But just reading about Ms. Rubin's exhaustive research and preparation to find happiness, leaves me weary and unhappy. I find many of her suggestions suspect. I don't mean to disrespect Ms. Rubin nor discount her noble effort to help people find happiness. So I ponder the whole happiness concept. It seems to me happiness is purely subjective.

I wonder about people who seem to be happy all the time (aside from them just annoying the hell out of me). Are they truly happy, or addicted to positive attitude? Are there other elements in play here? How much of our happiness is a product of our DNA, how much a result of our environment? Ms. Rubin's research indicated that as much as 50% of our capacity for happiness is our genetic make-up, and as much as 30% is a result of our environment. That would leave a slender 20% for a positive attitude to reverse the effects of who you are and where you came from.

Does geographic location effect one's happiness? Life in paradise could lead to happiness. Is there a wall chart some where, a map of the world marked up by a Sharpie, indicating people from this area are 20% happier than people from another locale? I hope I'm wrong, just the thought of such a chart makes me unhappy.

I've decided to start my own happiness project, one that appeals to my own subjective sensibilities. But there must be rules! First, I mustn't be unduly cruel to the terminally happy, even if it would make me happy to do so. Second, I must document what I did that made me happy and why it made me happy (even if the effort to document makes me unhappy).

Day One: Jason and I went to the shooting range for some target practice. I got some practice getting used to my newly acquired S&W 10mm. It's a substantial gun that feels good in my paw, and after about 40 rounds I was getting a reasonable grouping at 3 meters. I shot the Ruger .22 and even at 10 meters it provides a nice tight group. I shot Jason's Ruger 9mm and it is a very nice gun that is easy to shoot. I was entertained by the guy in the booth next to me, he had a bunch of really nice guns. I really liked his Beretta .40, what a beautiful gun, and boy does it bark! This was a fun outing, but did it make me happy? It cost $60 in fees and ammunition (that doesn't make me happy), and I was gone from the shop for an hour in the middle of the day. Did my absence cause some undue cruelty to a terminally happy person? It's hard to say, there were no anxiety ridden messages on the answering machine, but that's not to say someone didn't stop by while I was away.

This is getting too complex (which makes me unhappy), am I allowed to flush conscience and responsibility in order for me to consider this a totally happy experience? Maybe I'll just give it a 2.5 on the happiness scale (a 1 being a not so happy experience and a 5 being a really happy experience).

Day Two: Saturday!! That makes me happy already, I'm going to give today a 5 on the happiness scale. Well maybe a 4, I do have to help Paul with his remodeling project, when what I ought to be doing is working on my own list of the million things that I've got to get done. I think I'll just drop by and offer Paul some encouragement, let him borrow a few tools (which I hate to do, it could provide unhappiness) and get to work on my own stuff. Then there is the movie factor, if Machete turns out to be the truly funny movie it promises to be, today could salvage it's 5 rating...

Tomorrow is Sunday, which normally would be an automatic 5 rating. The Sabbath, a day of worship and rest from cares of the world. But a couple of weeks ago I was called to be a counselor in a Bishopric. This is a calling that carries much responsibility, which in and of itself doesn't bother me. It's hearing about all the problems people in our ward have, difficult hard to solve problems. This could severely impact tomorrow's happiness rating, but I'm going to take the positive attitude approach. I'm just a counselor, all the real responsibility and heavy decisions are the Bishop's problem. I hope Hank is up to the challenge. Maybe I'll give him a copy of "The Happiness Project", a book by Gretchen Rubin.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Affairs of the pump

I'm typing, "If it is to be, it is up to me," my fingers furiously fumbling over the keys of the Royal typewriter in my ninth grade Personal Use Typing class. Mrs. Statchel, my little world's equivalent of a Nazi SS officer, focuses her disdain on me with laser beam intensity, her cat-lady glasses dangling from the chain draped around her neck. Being the third Wittkop male to find himself in one of Statchel's P.U.T. classes hadn't helped matters. The second Wittkop male, my brother Bill; was, at least in his mind, the equivalent of James Dean. That legacy, along with the splint on my right thumb, had not endeared me with Col. Statchel. "Go ahead, stone me to death with Royal typewriters! Throw in an old heavy Underwood, just for good measure!"- my thoughts as I wished for relief from this unpleasant state of affairs of my own making.

My mother had advised me to take Personal Use Typing, extolling the merit of this adroit discipline. Of course she would, my mother had been an executive secretary. Her fingers could gracefully glide across the glass keys of her ancient Underwood, effortlessly pumping out word after word. I had agreed with my mother's reasoning, figuring there couldn't be a better place to meet chicks...

It's fair to say I've been extracting revenge on machinery ever since, in my mind all of it being kin to that cursed typewriter. I am not by nature a competitive person, so I don't consider my crusade a man vs. machine struggle. It's much more primal, a love/hate relationship that began long before attending summer school to improve my failing grade in Personal Use Typing.

My father was particularly good at keeping me busy, so I often found myself on the business end of our reel type lawn mower. Two bucks to cut the Green's front yard, another three bucks for the rear yard. I had to cut the lawn of the widow across the street from the Green's for free, I still feel gratitude for the modest size of her yard. The Willifer's, the Harris', and several more who's names time has erased. That old reel mower never needed anything more than an occasional squirt of oil. Then came the Sears gas powered lawn mower! Wow! What a great invention, I could breeze through my tasks with a fraction of the effort. But at a cost, this convenience came with the price of maintenance. Change the oil, clean the air filter, sharpen the blade, plus the obligatory squirt of oil.

From the sweat of my brow came fabulous wealth. This is how I secured my first vehicle. Brother Bill had borrowed $40, a princely sum at the time. The debt was forgiven in exchange for his '59 Volkswagon Van (with a bad engine). A VW "how to" book was purchased and within weeks the engine was swapped out and I had taken to modifying the interior. Of course I was still over a year away from getting my drivers learners permit, however this fact didn't dampen the honeymoon. One night I got a little too brave. While my parents were out for the evening, I decided to take the van for a spin. This was another "Wow!" moment. Machinery provided more than just the challenge of repair and modification. They provide freedom and mobility!

By the time I had adequately ripened to receive my learners permit the van had been traded off for a '63 VW Beetle. In comparison to the van, it seemed like a rocket ship. The union of automobile and drivers license cemented my love affair with machinery. I had even come to terms with maintenance, just as the love struck ignores the faults of any object of desire. Being a teen aged boy I was well practiced at ignoring faults, especially my own, and had a crush on every female I encountered (my mother and Mrs. Statchel being the exceptions). First the throttle cable broke. Then the clutch cable. Exhaust leaks, oil leaks, brakes, flat tires. Reality being the harsh schoolmarm, I had to steel my resolve. I was in this for the long haul, especially when I saw the ad in the newspaper for the MGB.

As I was navigating my way into Irvington, to investigate this B series car of the Morris Garage marque, I was already envisioning myself sporting dark sunglasses. The wind trying its best to outdo my Odell hair trainer. Girls flirting with me, just on the outside chance they might get to go motoring in such a magnificent vehicle. It is not easy living with the knowledge that Alexander Pope was writing about me when he penned, "for fools rush in where angles fear to tread"

So a fool I have been, for 45+ years, loving machines until I hate them. Yet, I find comfort in this perverse relationship; knowing I will never relent, never retire. I will go to my grave, confident in the knowledge that no machine in my care was allowed to shirk it's duty, having sworn to make the infernal things fulfill the purpose of their existence.

I often think about how many different paths my life could have taken, where I might be now and what other type of machinery I would be cursing under my breath. I would trade the automobile for nuclear submarines, or the M1 Abrams tank. But regardless of how fascinating these other objects of desire might be initially, at some point the truth would be found out. They all share the machine equivalent of DNA with a Royal typewriter. Which is why, after all these years, I feel no remorse for throwing that anonymous iceball at Mrs. Statchel's Cadillac.

Friday, July 16, 2010

None finer in all the world.

I wasn't the first to reach the golden zone; David beat me there. I was lazy and didn't arrive until just after 7:00 am. Don't get me wrong, I love David like a brother, but he is a harvester. I am a gatherer.

To the casual observer, harvesters and gatherers might be considered the same. But there are fundamental differences. The harvester scrapes everything into the bucket, ready or not! The little green pea sized ball, the red slightly larger and definitely not ready globe, and the purple almost ready sphere. They all find themselves in David's bucket. This approach might work well for wheat or corn, but not for something as precious as a seasonal fruit.

A gatherer carefully picks that which is ready. It must have the right shape, size, texture and color. Each berry undergoes a rigorous evaluation. To do otherwise robs them of their God given right to fully mature, thus I allow them to better fulfill the measure of their creation. To the harvester a full gallon bucket represents an hour of work. To the gatherer a gallon bucket is a spiritual journey, something that isn't measured in time or effort.

I suffer from an extreme blueberry dependency problem. There, I've said it and the cat is out of the bag. But I offer no apologies, my reverence for the little blue orbs drives my pursuit for fruit excellence. However I don't hoard my stash of blueberries; I share them with friends and loved ones. A gift should be the best one has to offer, so from my personal stock I offer the gift that is a measure of how much I value the recipient. Such gifts are also a personal measure of ones humanity, the willingness to sacrifice time and energy in order to enrich another.

That is why the golden zone is so important. The berries gathered there are exceptional, their flavor exquisite. I would only share the location of the golden zone with someone I know would revere it as I do, another gatherer type. The golden zone has become for me my personal Garden of Eden. My cell phone has no reception there, so it cannot bother me. You can't hear a loud truck from a nearby highway, nor an obnoxious train to disturb with its audible vibrations. There is only the song of a bird or the buzz of a bee as it takes care of bee business. It is a place, when conditions are just right, you can hear Him whisper, "enjoy these blueberries, for there are none finer in all the world."

But, He also whispers to me, "be tolerant of David, even if he is a harvester."

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I have been thinking a lot about help, what it means to help someone, or to be helped by someone. Here is just some of what Webster's dictionary defines help as:

1. to make things easier or better for (a person); aid; assist, a) to give something which is necessary, as relief, succor, money, etc. b) to do part of the work of; ease or share the labor of c) to aid in (getting up, down, in, out, etc.) 2. to make it easier for (something) to exist, happen, develop, improve 3. to keep from, avoid, prevent

And this is just the verb portion of the definition! I know I am helped daily, often in ways I am unaware of, and I am immeasurably improved and enriched by the efforts of others in my life. I am also one that is unlikely to ask for help, I am loath to ask anyone to do for me that which I am perfectly capable of doing myself. But sometimes, when I've done all I know to do, I seek out help. I'm sure my friend Bob gets tired of my requests for help with my computer. He should probably tell me, "No, figure it out, learn and develop your own skills". But he doesn't, and I don't know why. Easier to fix it than to answer a thousand ignorant questions? Allows him to showcase his superior computer knowledge and skills? Just a darn nice guy that enjoys helping others? Probably all the above, and more.

Bev and I were watching an episode of Lost (we tend to lag 5-10 years behind popular cultural phenomenon), in which the mysterious John Lock was explaining to the lame drug addict Charlie what a double edge sword help really is. The analogy is a moth cocoon, the struggle the emerging moth goes through to free itself of the cocoon, is exactly what strengthens it so it can fly away and fulfill it's moth destiny. Helping it in any way weakens it, and the emerging moth would be incapable of flight. The Walking Moth, sounds like it could be a rock band.

So, this is my question, what is appropriate help? When is one making a difference for the good of another in need, and when is the helper just being co-dependent?

I ask this question for obvious reasons. All of my life I have been led to understand that helping others is a good thing, a moral imperative. The only instances in nature where one animal will help another is symbiotic relationships. There is always a one hand washes the other, so to speak, each animal reaping benefit from the other. But not with humans, we help one another constantly, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I now struggle with this question, with my own motivations for helping others, with the apprehension of weakening instead of strengthening. This line of thought reinforces my aversion to asking for, or accepting help. But I also know that I don't have control over anyone but myself. Others will pray on my behalf, and offer help, and do things for me out of love.

So, I move forward, a seeker of truth and enlightenment. Sometimes a seeker of help, sometimes a giver. Wondering if I'm a walking moth, huddled up with other flightless bugs waiting for the bus.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Against my better judgement

Politics is something that shouldn't be discussed in polite company. I have spent the last couple of hours reading from the website: It's a website full of articles from different writers, all thoughtful and thought provoking. I enjoyed several articles by Thomas Sowell and Cal Thomas, I consider them wise and rational. Then I read an article by Mona Charen, about Greece's economic problems.

Greece is a small country, 11.3 million people. Seems that one in three Greeks works for their government. There were riots last week in Athens, Greece, over government austerity programs. The people rioting, government employees. Three are dead from the rioting. Greece is a nation on the brink of chaos and disaster. Why were they rioting? Because they don't want to sacrifice any of their benefits. The Greek government employee has a higher wage, better benefits and an earlier retirement than their private sector counterparts. It's impossible for a civil servant to get fired, even in light of gross incompetence.

All this news didn't much bother me, that's all Greece's problems, and we have enough of our own to worry about. Then the article moved on to problems much closer to home.

More than 50 percent of union members in the United States are public sector employees. There is a quote of an economic historian that points out, "Federal workers now earn, in wages and benefits, about twice what their private-sector equivalents get paid. State workers often have better health plans and retirement benefits than the private-sector average: 80 percent of public-sector workers have pension benefits, only 50 percent in the private sector." Then this article makes a statement that brings everything into acute focus (this is a copy and paste quote from the article, my apologies to Mona Charen if this offends her).

"It's no coincidence that the states with the most powerful public sector unions — New Jersey, California, and New York — are facing the most severe budget crises."

Oops! I only thought I was reading about Greece's problems! But these should be considered Spain's or Italy's or, yes, the good old USA's problems. We are facing a crisis that has been a hundred years in the making, our economic and government models are at odds, and our current political system appears inadequate (or impotent, you can chose the adjective). Mr. Obama and his administration seem to feel that growing our government is the answer to our economic problems. He is doing this at a time when industry and service sectors are struggling. This being the only portion of our economy that actually provides wealth, and therefore tax revenue, to pay for governmental services. This appears like the same approach that FDR used during the depression of the 1930's. It didn't work then, it's unlikely to work 80 years later in a larger and much more complex economic/politically diverse world.

Now we get to the really depressing stuff. Mr. Roosevelt's economic policies didn't fix the depression, know what did? Mr. Obama's economic policies aren't looking to good either, know what's gonna happen? Do a Google search on: What is Chaostan? You will find an article by Richard Mayberry. A pre 9/11, twelve year old article that is eerily accurate.
A wise man once said, "the worst time to be a parent is 18 years before a war". I have a nephew in the Marines, I wish he's get out, right now!

But I have a plan, a way to fix this problem. I need to be benevolent dictator of the world! Well, maybe just the USA for right now. Once I get the USA straightened out I can move on to Chaostan and the rest of the world. Be of good cheer! All I need is everyone's complete cooperation for the next 5-10 years....