Friday, December 9, 2011

On This Voyage Together


So I’ve never really told you how we met.

Really, let’s be honest, I’ve never really talked about the woman I’m married to at all. A lot of reasons for this, maybe some excuses, however I think as she faces another birthday like a runaway train, high time I did, no more reasons or excuses allowed.

What seems like eons ago now I secured a gig working for a fine video game development company called Radical, maybe you’ve heard of it. At the time the company had diverge their workforce into separate teams, and spun those teams in orbit around a technology team nucleus developing a proprietary engine that the various teams would both benefit from and contribute aspects too. I joined one team, second largest on site. The woman I’d eventually be betrothed to, well, she worked on the main stage, the big show; the team with the big project and bigger funding to prove it. As Ang Lee tried to turn Marvel’s Incredible Hulk into a gamma irradiated answer to Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress,  her team tried to turn a cartoon rail driving engine into a combat corridor conquest the likes of which the company had never previously seen.

I came aboard after a year out of game development, a year of film school lessons and hard knocks; twelve months of savings account draining unemployment in a country that would let me legally study, just not legally work until Radical took the bold leap and sponsored my sordid arse. During that year the game development landscape had shifted, as had my personal game playing practices. The market had shifted from PC to consoles, PS2 leading the charge, XBox making a solid foothold soon after. I left games for a year as PC games appeared to be teetering on the edge of extinction, and reentered during the veritable console renaissance of PS2, and XBox, with the so called Next Gen consoles looming on the distant horizon.

I reentered game development full of PC development philosophies and attitudes, and quickly found I had no idea what the hell was going on. Radical had a long history as a developer, largely console based, and largely sports title centric. Coming aboard onto the second largest team that intended to leverage the newly forming engine from the tech team downstairs to make a game bigger and more ambitious that Grand Theft Auto meant getting up to speed so fast liberal amounts of one part attitude two parts bullshit were required on regular basis. Not long after beginning my year off from game development I’d procured a PS2 with the sole intention of playing GTA 3 and GTA Vice City. Sure, I’d played Res Evil 2 and Wipeout and Tekken like mad with my roommates back in Eugene, but having played the top down GTA installments on PC, that IP (Intellectual Property) grabbed my scruff and needed scratching. Couple hundred hours of gameplay over the course of the following year, I entered Radical feeling certain I could, given a chance, fix everything broken or wrong with GTA for certain.

I’m explaining all of this to establish how alone and vulnerable I felt when I officially met Lindz the first time.

I had seen her around work, in the Great Room, had noted that she held power within what I considered the A Team, the Hulk team. I’d gone to the Hulk wrap party as arm candy for a Quebec weight lifter woman and seen Lindz clearly large and in charge at that event. I watched her more than I should have, enough for my diminutive, muscle bound friend to tell me Lindz’s name and ensure I wouldn’t be getting lucky with my bench pressing beauty that particular evening.

At the time I had little to no actual comprehension what that power Lindz weld with her team might actually be. Women in game development up to that point in my modest career had been administration or human resources or artists. I hadn’t met any women who produced, or designed, or programmed yet. Of course Radical changed my game development world view pretty quickly, thank goodness. At that point though I still lived in a tiny bubble as the only other designer on a project that had only just gone from being about star struck lovers on a crime streak to 50 Cent (for a month) to Tony Montana in Scarface. I felt overwhelmed, alone, and largely hell bound. Growing up half Catholic and half Presbyterian leads to a lot of melodramatic dispositions given half a chance.

So thanks to landing the Scarface license / IP, I received my first ever business trip down south to GDC (Game Developer’s Conference). A part of my duty as a representative of Radical at the conference involved stopping in at the recruiting booth to cover for the full time folks there, give them a break while talking to young hopefuls trying to get their foot across the threshold into the games industry. And so it was as I hung out at the recruiting booth talking to kids and leveraging my art background to intermittently review the occasional portfolio that I first spoke to Lindz. Actually spoke to her. What I said, or answered, because all I can remember is a crushing, roaring wall of sound, the sort that comes from stuffing your head inside of a seashell, so I have no idea who spoke first or about what, but I remember feeling like nothing I said or quipped impressed her whatsoever. Of course, she’ll tell you differently, that she made chit chat about the ladies going to the mall later, asking me if I’d like to come along. I don’t remember that, I mean, really? Those that know this monkey know full well a trip to the mall with the ladies is a bunch of bananas not to be refused. I think realistically we just probably glared at one another, circling the water bowl of complimentary Radical “More Cowbell” stickers, suspiciously mumbling vowels. Who knows?

A few months later Radical had a Town Hall. Now something you should understand about the video game industry is that there is a definite penchant for beer, or drinking in general, in the industry. Not irresponsible drinking, there are taxi vouchers always. Beer is the typical crowd pleaser, and every company I’ve worked for or have pals at has sponsored some sort of weekly, biweekly, monthly, and / or annual event that would make many a Brew Master nod appreciatively.  EA called them Beer & Cakes. Next Level called them Beer & Tapas or something like that. Slant Six Games calles them Beer O’Clocks. Radical had them monthly, and called them Town Halls.

At Town Halls I quickly figured out that the best policy to ensure continued employment entailed never, ever talking to a woman after enjoying a tasty brown pop. Beer plus my acute degree of social inadequacy equates to HR complaints, so after a plastic cup brimming with complimentary Sun God or Black Raven Brew, I zipped lip and found some manly types to skulk around lest I risk blurting out something inappropriate to piss off the fairer gender in the workplace.

So of course, always one to break every rule I set for myself, I find myself after a Town Hall sitting down in the vacant seat next to Lindz’s desk on fine Friday evening, with two pints in hand fully intended for my own consumption though I did clue in enough to offer one to her for the hoped for refusal before consuming both myself. Call it liquid courage, call it foolhardy adventure, call it wuzzy if it helps you smile; what I know is that I sat in that chair like a suspect in a police station asking her questions about her game of WOW (World of Warcraft) as she played with her fellow A Team associates as though I had genuine Inquisitive Designer Must Know and Understand curiosity as a less that subtle pretense to asking her out on a date.

And somehow, instead of annoyance, I got explanations about the mechanics, about inter kingdom travel on flying ships, about familiars, inventory systems, the WOW answer to EBay, and a date on the following Friday. At the Locus on Main, a place I’d never heard of. And a place where she arrived wearing a hoodie with the hood up as though for fear of being recognized and I arrived feeling vaguely proud of myself for stopping home to brush my teeth before trudging up the hill along Main to the venue of the evening.

We talked a lot that night, perhaps screening, perhaps investigation, perhaps realizing mutual curiosity. Perhaps appreciating same.

We dated, we grew closer, and somewhere in there I realized I needed to grow up. We took some time off, I got some things out of my system. I realized I both needed to grow up and really, really missed being around Lindz. 

And there is more to Lindz than simply her. With her comes her family and friends, and over the years they’ve become dear to me as well. She grew up an only child with another only child, a product of her parent’s best friends, Alex. Alex eventually married David, the man who’d be best man when I eventually married Lindz; as much because he chose to smile at me at a gas station on Main and 2nd during the time Lindz and I were split up as anything, and there are a lot of things, I look up to the guy. What an honor to get to be his best man when he married Alex, get to make a speech that remains one of the most rehearsed pieces of prose I’ve ever attempted only to still have it evolve and become that much greater on the day.

With Lindz comes her parents, her wonderful parents, her Mom with all the stories of Newfoundland, and her Dad with a presence of a mountain on the horizon at dawn, with all his stories to tell, and the gold cufflinks he’s entrusted me with until he needs them again. And their friends, Alex’s parents, Peggy and Dave, and all our holiday traditions that Peggy calls the Turkey Club, when we all take station at a long table for Thanksgiving (the Canadian version in October) and Christmas (the Canadian version is still in December).

With Lindz comes her surrogate sisters, all five of them, some closer than others but all noteworthy and frankly intimidating. Closest to roost the real sisters Kim and Nichole, a wealth of shared history, various misadventures, and their children who our son Otis will effectively know as cousins. That is a very beautiful thing.

Most of all though, with Lindz comes Lindz. Her mutual affinity for Halloween, her stunning  culinary skills and curiosities, her amazing ability to work as a high powered manager by day and still wrangle a toddler and a household by night. Her bright eyes and creased grin. Her loyalty, belief, and patience. Her knowledge of Canadian literature, introducing me to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Stewart McLean’s Vinyl Café. For building traditions and planning trips and believing I could ever me more of a person, partner, and parental influence than I would have ever believed possible.

And I’m married to her. Holy bucket of chicken, how did she ever let that happen?

Happy Birthday, Lindz. I’m glad we’re on this journey together. I’m proud of how far we’ve come, and gaze with unabashed wonderment at the sprawling mystery of what adventures dwell ahead. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My Aunt Jen


I don’t remember when I first met my Aunt Jen, though I’m sure I probably met her even earlier than that, during the time before memory. Essentially I’m declaring definitively and with definite enthusiasm that my Aunt Jen has been a role model and veritable icon in my personal iconography of family for as long as I can remember.

Her beautifully big voice, her bigger personality, and her bigger still heart have been there when a lot of other things didn’t seem to be throughout my childhood. Her visits, sometimes solo and sometimes with Her Mom and Aunts were things my brother and I looked forward too, like they were bringing the vacations to us since we couldn’t find the means to leave Tennessee to see them.

Aunt Jen is the first woman I knew that played golf, and I thought of her years later when my neighbors Glenn and Katsuyo tried to teach me the most thoughtfully strolling game on the mosquito infested fields of Eugene, Oregon. Aunt Jen is the first woman I knew for certain my biological Father was afraid of, at least, other than my Mother. His older sister, she’d cut the cloth defining what rebel and outlaw looked like in their homestead, and I suspect he always felt a bit awed and overshadowed by her zany shenanigans. True, he managed to destroy the family car more epically than his sisters, driving over an open manhole and ripping the drive shaft manifold thing off the underside of the their mother’s family sedan. If you’re going to exceed the rebellious accomplishments, short of teen pregnancy, that’s a pretty good start.

Jen’s last name is Henry. At some point previous to my walking the Earth, Aunt Jen married a fellow that I’ve always thought of as named Henry though of course that’s actually his surname. They’d been divorced a while before I met him, and wasn’t until the past decade I came to learn concepts in the Gay and Lesbian community like Beard, so while he might not of been a certified “Beard”, or she for that matter, does help fill in missing details as to how these to people I grew up knowing as Best Friends, Ever could have ever gotten divorced. My only hint of contention between them comes from an anecdote about his missing sense of smell, and how that meant he had no idea the cat box had ripened beyond tolerance a week ago, or that the gas primers were out. Mr. Henry remains the only person I’ve met with that strange handicap / affliction, and while he is spared the unpleasant odors, I feel very bad for all the scratch and sniff opportunities denied him in life.

My Aunt Jen is the first Lesbian I’ve ever known. Not that I knew she was when I knew her first, and I met many others before I officially found out sometime in my early twenties when Aunt Jen and I began to reunite, catch up, and realize one another both pretty damn cool folks for various reasons likely puzzling to the other.

Moving to and living in Cincinnati’s Gaslight District with my friend / girlfriend / fiancé / first wife Lisa, I had my first exposure to Gay Culture. I’m capitalizing what I feel deserves respect, or at least, has earned my respect. While I worked at GJ’s by Gaslight across the street from the Roach Motel aka The Roanoke I met a wondrous cadre of folks that had found themselves not fitting the norms television and media pushed down our collective throats, the nuclear family, the man woman two kids picket fence pink houses and a pet. Sure, might keep and flip those tacky-gaudy pink houses, but the rest turned out to be rubbish for many of the friends I made while I lived there, and through them I learned about how to confront insecurities, or social awkwardness, being different, defining yourself for who you are and what you want to be and believe in. Who you’re realizing you actually are despite what the TV tells you, the church tells you, your school or work or supposed friends and peers tell you.

Excuse the tangent to explain a few very key points that will prove embarrassing to me yet had the unforeseen benefit of helping my Aunt Jen and I understand and open up more to one another.

As an early twenties male with a couple years of college radio under his belt and a sense that his narrow mind is wide open like some armchair Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac with a healthy, or unhealthy, interest in all things boobs and beauties, I’d tired of doctored photo airbrush touch up Playboy and plastic fantastic Penthouse type men’s magazines and begun to look for something more real. Or at least, different. Not hardcore, not people humping sheep or anything. Had unfortunately seen a bit of that during my freshman year in college thanks to my friend Shawn, and I really wish I never had, absurd and unappealing as it had been.

No, I wanted something real, something speaking for an audience to an audience that wasn’t utterly manufactured. And the, ironically from a Club International column I learned about Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle. That would prove to be the last issue of CI I would ever purchase, a final glossy paged Adult equivalent to teen classic Hit Parade requested from the considerable rack (pardon the pun) behind the corner convenience store counter on my way to one of my last overnight shifts at WRFL 88.1, that in a plastic sack with a two liter of Coke and three Honey Bunch frosted buns (ironic, I know) and a couple packs of Camels, all the stimulants I’d need to stay alert during the 3am slump. By this point the improbable necking twins and dynamic doubles were scarcely enough to solicit more than an appraisers grunt, good form here, could stand to lay off the Oreos there. And so of course, as any Playboy aficionado will tell you, when the eye candy looses luster, you begin reading your secret journals for the articles. And while Ween sang about weasels in their chimney and Alice Donut bemoaned an egg and Boss Hog growled about finding water, I read about two women that were feminists of a completely different ilk, and suspect the entire time someone had hired a female intern on a lark at Club International, possibly a feminist or at least a liberal arts major, because the articles author seemed deeply intent on steering me away from plastic pretenses to something smarter, owner empowered, and far more fair to the females involved.

I’d read Our Bodies, Ourselves when about the same time I hit double digits of age, and while I would never claim to have understood half of what that fine tome contained, I did appreciate that women should have some control over how they chose to objectify themselves, how they serve themselves up to the consuming public. This goofy little interview in Club International so many years later helped me to better understand what I’d read as a kid, and further, plant a few signposts for me to follow as though searching for some sort of guilt free, non-oppressive porn OZ in the wilds of alternative media and literature.

And in Cincinnati, I found the magazine that seemed to reflect a non-exploitative, honest sort of erotica, a magazine that incidentally cite Susie Bright as a managing editor called On Our Backs. Sure, the pictures were all black and white and the paper didn’t lend itself to splaying out easily on a thigh in the throne room. I actually never felt I could treat a single issue I procured with the indignities many a cheap issue of Club International had suffered. Instead, I wanted to read, to know, to understand, everything that could possibly contextualize the few scant photos the magazine issues contained. Picture might be worth a thousand words when you want to read into a photo, however when you want to know just the facts, ma’am then the photo, well, she has some ‘splainin’ to do. And through those issues I learned about bell hooks, about Betty Dodson, and about Susie Bright’s gynecological stage performances with the audience meets speculum line-ups.

And sometime about then is when Aunt Jen and I began to reacquaint after years of minimal, birthday card sorts of interaction. And somehow, like yet another example of how a quest for boobs has lead to some small or large personal enlightenment about life, art, culture, etc., I had more to offer for substance and questions for my Aunt Jen, and through that, she felt more able to share with me.

And when Aunt Jen came out to me, I seriously thought she could not have found a way to become even cooler in my book than she already was. Surprisingly, perhaps, not for the obvious virile straight male reasons, I mean, sure the lipstick lesbian fantasy sounds awesome for let’s pretend time, however people are people are people and having recently discovered through On Our Backs a tiny lens into one strata of society not getting a lot of mainstream exposure, that my Aunt Jen represented a stand up and be who she wanted to be regardless of social perception or awkwardness commanded my respect, my admiration, hell, even my envy. Didn’t take that many club land field trips with my coworkers from GJ by Gaslight to sort out that despite my interests in fashion and dramatic flair, I would forever be straight and thereby typical and mundane.

I remember seeing Dead or Alive at the Dock in Columbus, and during the Halloween after party being asked off the wall while wearing jeans and a sleeveless Abercrombie & Fitch flannel shirt to dance by a handsome doppelganger for the prime of career version of Arsenio Hall, and feeling deeply flattered while turning him down. I don’t care about gender, when you’re 260 pounds and wearing a mall boutique store lumberjack wife-beater and someone still finds you attractive, you blush, you courtesy, and you goddamn well say thank you. I didn’t dance with the silk suit wearing Seal looking beauty for a few reasons. For one, I’d learned to dance from Yo’ MTV Raps with Ed Lover and Dr. Dre, and yes Who’s the Man is one of my favorite movies, as is Coming to America. Anyone that knows me can attest to the epic majesty of my shuffle step, however no way on a throbbing gay club self illuminating dance floor after a warm up set from Pete Burns with his sequined pasties and Yankee Doodle Dandy sequined thong. For another, even if the dance went well, I didn’t want things to go farther, or to encounter an awkward moment of confronting misunderstanding. Sure, I might look vaguely bear or butch, but I work for a bank that represents credit cards for clothing stores, collect Kenner Star Wars figures, and have a girlfriend back home that I look forward to getting personal with if she’ll let me when I get home. Yeah, sadly straight, or so I thought back then, normal, typical, and boring. Not like my Aunt Jen at all.

Lisa and I braved a literal hurricane on the highway to drive from Columbus to Buffalo to stay for a week with Aunt Jen. That’s where the picture at the head of this post is from. Somewhere is a picture of me holding my first ever lobster a few minutes before I discovered how traumatic killing your first lobster can actually be. If I find that picture, I’ll post it, pretty funny stuff.

We stayed with my Aunt Jen and together the three of us went on a tour of everything she could think of to show us. My first Canadian cigarettes? My Aunt got them for me. Expos. I marveled over the strangely wider, short packaging and different, less toxin infused flavor. My first and second Lesbian owned & operated venues? My Aunt took us to them, introducing us to her friends, her surrogate family, quietly explaining the real meanings to terms I’d learned from porn, what a lipstick lesbian actually is, and how that repressed power play is not nearly as endearing or fancy free as I might’ve been lead to believe. She pointed out women that turned to the gay and lesbian community for support after abusive relationships, something Aunt Jen professionally understood and worked to remedy through counseling and support, then for children, later for people probably not unlike the handful she indicated during our whirlwind Willy Wonka tour of her life and lifestyle.

We accompanied her to meet and chat with her therapist. Having had a strange couple rounds with shrinks as a kid, I had to wonder why someone all grown up and so seemingly in charge of her epic like as Aunt Jen would need a couch to cry on, so to speak. And then I learned how human Aunt Jen actually is, and somehow, that just made me love her more. She had regrets, memories, and at least for a couple of those I think our visit helped dispel some ghosts, exorcise a couple demonic doubts, something like that.

When Lisa and I got married, we of course invited Aunt Jen. And she came, and further, she brought Mary, and Mary rocked, and now all this time later the two of them have finally, officially been able to legally tie the knot that was apparent as noses on faces for Lisa and I way back when, when my youngest sister thought flower girl meant flower power and my brother still blushed when I teased him and my Dad showed up with tortoise shell sunglasses looking not unlike a young Jack Nicholson and my biological father Tom wanted to take pictures of everything signifying a bourgeoning career with his wife Gloria that would come full circle snapping beautiful shots at Aunt Jen and Aunt Mary’s wedding last month.

You’ve read me mention churches in my past, and I could do well to clarify that some other day. Suffice to say the Presbyterian church has been an aspect of the Christy family for quite some time, back to Aunt Jen’s Father, a Granddad I never met but fortunately have a number of recorded sermons my biological father Tom digitized years ago. While I never knew the man, I’m positive he would have been proud his daughter, his firstborn child, chose to also be one half of the first ever Same Sex union in Presbyterian history, in New York and apparently anywhere else, including Ohio. And I know I am.

Despite the strange ways we get to know one another again and again over the years, results clearly justify the means, and I could not be more happy for or earnestly congratulate my Aunt Jen for making official for the world the life and love that reflects her being as an individual, self-wrought and whole.

Nothing but love, respect, and appreciation this day for my Aunts Jen and Mary. Hope to see you again soon, introduce you to my family, my better-half Lindz, and most of all my son, your Great Nephew, who I hope you’ll both inspire every bit as much as you and your Aunts inspired me.



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Loneliness is Listening to Rob Halford inside a Concrete Bunker Beneath a Cow Pattie Minefield


Wearing a black London Fog sort of rain coat with tattered pocket flaps and long lost waist belt, a t-shirt, faded iron-on-patched kneed jeans, and kitchen duty grease grime grizzled Nike clone sneakers; I’d hike up the narrow asphalt road that lead away from Washington College Academy swinging my tape player Radio-Shack boom box like a logger foot falling away to fell a forest somewhere.

Scattered school buildings falling away behind me, the boys dorm last to pass by, I followed the route I’d had to run up for innumerable gym PE classes and again later in the day for Soccer practice, running up to where the footie pitch and the baseball diamond were cleared on a level lot shoulder checked by the back sides of several farms’ worth of backend scrub and pastures gone to seed. Passing the soccer field, a little further on a road begins heading off to the right. If I were to turn and follow that, eventually that narrow paved road would run into another, turn right again and be halfway back to Washington College again, another right turn soon after and you’d be looping up the delivery drive same as all those other times I ran the designated outdoor mile with gym class or the soccer team.

I pass the turn off and keep going straight, passing the house where Jeff and his parents live. Another house owned by the school, the parents do work for the school managing the grounds, the cemetery, general repairs, handyman stuff. Occasionally Jeff’s mother had to sub in at the girl’s dorm as a Ms. Garret sort of house mother should the normal night chaperone fall ill or the day den mother become more ill tempered than usual. My Mom got on well enough with Jeff’s Mom, perhaps out of the sort of indentured servitude sort of housing situations both families shared. Oddly enough, Jeff and I had known one another from the mental health summer camp way back when, and were quick to become friends at school, despite our age difference. Easy to glom together when no one else will talk to you.

Jeff had a couple years on me, wore glasses, had a Don Knotts physique, got comics every month at the convenience store with his allowance money and actually let me read them, wherein I discovered the X-Men, specifically when Kitty Pryde befriended Lockheed to date myself, and soon after I got Alpha Flight and discovered the ads for Alien Legion, the ones that only showed the silhouettes of the aliens wearing what I took to be Stormtrooper armor, and though took another couple years before I actually encountered a comic book store and caught up on Alien Legion, I redrew ever silhouette and filled in the details as best I could guess for months in many a spiral bound notebook.

Jeff and I were both on the soccer team, and both rode the bench through pretty much every game, only allowed to go out on the field if the team fell into the double digits behind their opponents, a fair regularity actually, or if Jeff’s parents managed to make it out. Mine never did, too busy and spread too thin, a standard that unfortunately remained true through every stage or sporting event I ever took part in. After a while I stopped telling them what I was in or doing, reverse psychology treatment that made the events mine to hide so that when I joined the kids in the eves peeking out to see if we could spot my parents, I did it from a place of worry and dread, like I feared they’d catch me touching myself inappropriately in public, instead of letting the disappointment get the better of me that my parents would never see a single play I acted in, a debate or speech or mock trial team event I compete in, a single soccer game or thankfully a single one of those horrific three baseball games I played in.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. My first acting opportunity, outside of the talent show dog pile mime fail I’ve previously blogged about, arose in sixth grade at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Johnson City, Tennessee. I landed the role of Santa Clause, not because I had the girth, I didn’t get the ol’ Christy Gift until college. I landed that choice role because it had a lot of lines compressed into two appearances, meaning, a double whammy of massive memorization with minimal parent pant inducing presence on stage. Oh, and I would have to lead the entire cast and audience in a rousing round of Silent Night, singing the first stanza verse utterly acapella, unless you count the squeak of shifting weight as parents look around to see who in the audience this creaking hinge squealing on stage belongs too. Balls dropped about a year later, by the way.

My Mom was there, at least, for the first half of the play, and for the first of my two scenes, when the Martians or whatever arrive to abduct me, grabbing me so hard the seat cushion I have belted to my midriff shoots out onto stage like a Pillsbury dough baby. I’m surprisingly hard pressed to remember if she could stay through to the end of the play and my stunning solo singing debut. I recall being picked up, and I also remember feeling outside of the other kids, not a lot new there, however off stage I became more than just another kid again, I went from being a persona people adored and coveted enough to come from another planet to steal to being a chumless child deeply wishing he could wish away to some Little Prince planet with a flower and a chatty volcano for company. I wanted to be the Last Starfighter, the kid that transcended, got to play the hero and wrestle with how to be humble when everyone kept assure you of your inherent greatness.

I worry my self-obsessing during the natural come down from the rush of performing obscured my poor Mom trying to celebrate my premiere. Perhaps I manufactured my own loneliness that time. Maybe I manufacture a lot of it now, too. Probably should work on not making myself so hard to get to know, and generally unsociable. Not to sidetrack into another tangent, just a quick stage whisper that insecurity and a lot of alone time during your foundational years can lead to some real reluctance, or inversely, awkward overcompensation, when dealing with groups of people as an adult. Getting bullied, attracting hassles via the very traits I just outlined, simply ensconces withdrawn and distrustful disposition.

Keep walking, making long strides as I pass by Jeff’s house, not knowing by sensing that in a couple months I’d be moving on, leaving Tennessee behind, and that meant Jeff as well, likely never see him again. During eighth grade I’d become more withdrawn anyway, puberty kicking in, hormones setting the moods to swing like a piñata in batting cage, so Jeff and I weren’t as close anymore anyway. He’d gotten older; I’d gotten more detached and socially evasive, etc.

The trench coat I’d picked up from some flea market while out with my Mom I submit as testimonial to both my poor fashion sensibilities and my burgeoning desire to be different, hardcore, something. I mean, my black Member’s Only clone from Sears had three Motley Cure buttons on the lapel that eventually the church youth group director at the televised Presbyterian strip-mall scale church Tom used to take me too some weekends asked me to take the them off. I’d offended the church man, look at me, I’m edgy!

Maybe edgy enough to play Truth or Dare on the Church Bus and too win a sloppy tongue slapping make out with the dumpy soccer mom in training behind a Little Ceasers while rest of the kids played Putt-Putt nearby, too swirl a finger around her sweaty cleft trying to Helen Keller my way to understanding at last what I’d read about in my Mom’s Our Bodies, Ourselves a couple years earlier. Full of snot and flurry, signifying nothing.
A couple months later my family would be uprooting and moving to Kentucky. I didn’t know that yet. I just wanted to get to the cow pasture on the next hill past Jeff’s family’s house. I’d clomped around there a few times before and discovered a strange concrete platform with an entryway on one side, like a window with sill or ceremony. Looking down inside, you could see three rungs made of rebar fashioned into the wall. Inside the window, and largely underground but for the higher roof part that formed the platform outside, I found a concrete box of a room with wicked reverb acoustics that turned a cheap Radio Shack tape player into a throbbing, ear bleeding boom box. Or so I projected, as this trip would be the inaugural attempt to wrap a wedge of lemon around a gold brick, so to speak.

I did the cursory quick look around and detect no one around except a couple very bored cows that clearly couldn’t be bothered to care, then threw a leg over the lip of the window, found a rung with my sneaker toe, and clambered in after with the rest of me, reaching out to drag the tape player carefully in last.

Enough light filtered into the space through the entrance to give even the edges of the space a gloomy legibility. At most twenty feet by twenty feet side to side back to front, it went down into the ground about four feet, so I had to duck if I wanted to go beyond the part of the roof forming the platform visible to the outside.

I sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, sat the radio down before me, popped the cassette to check that it still sat spooled and cued to the particular spot I wanted, a lost art now that cassettes have vanished from the face of the planet. I shoved the tape back into the drawer and slapped it home with practiced perfect flick. I paused, waved my hands and flexed my fingers like a pianist about to commence his concerto, carefully rolled the volume button to eleven as best I could, then slowly, decisively, deliberately pressed the play button with one pointy pointer finger.

Maybe not citrus wrapped around construction materials, the explosion of sound bouncing around the inside of the concrete box shocked me enough to feel caught out. I squint at the entrance for fear the police had come to investigate, that fast a response to this sudden seething screeching sound, literally ‘Screaming for Vengeance.”

The song eventually faded off, and without a second thought I pressed stop. I carefully stood, ducking so as not to brain myself on the concrete slab ceiling, fetched the radio and made my way to the exit, climbed out over the lip and flopped down on the grass to watch the clouds go by for a while, ears ringing though the ringing faded quickly, transitioned into the rustle of grass, breeze in the thickets by the fence I’d hopped over earlier, tug huff crunch sounds of cows nearby trimming the lawn casually. I noticed the sounds of the world more distinctly after the boom box experiment, as though decibel ranges came back on line separately, red lights going green and there’s grass, and wind, and crickets are on line, and cow bell is a go!

As the afternoon faded I remembered I had kitchen duty and heaved myself up to head back towards campus and home and duties to serve. I liked washing dishes, the sense of completion you got from shoving trays laden with plates through the loud, steaming, scalding moisture machine, and the way the din and racket made conversation beyond incidental shouting and caveman gestures impossible.

Being alone isn’t always an awful thing. Loneliness means partly wanting to share your adventures with someone else, if anyone cares too. Maybe codependency is always having to share your adventures, or is that just ego? A need for constant validation? Maybe loneliness is an inability to self-validate?

For me, loneliness meant being an outsider, for whatever reason, and when I’m not wearing the pity party toga, I think I facilitate a lot of my own segregation. However the origin of species, I am a being that likes to observe, and likes to be observed when given a platform that permits a constructed personae. I suspect this isn’t particularly unusual, except perhaps for the extremes I take each too.

I love the chaos of stage, yet don’t really want to be the star, just appreciated, get the laughs and back off. I inversely also love the roar of silence in large, open spaces natural or man-made, the anonymity inherent to a speck of man versus a mountain of monumental magnitude.

And I want to be able to walk home with something knew in my head, maybe to share, maybe to hold dear and mull over for later use. Because as Rob sang:
If you think I'll sit around as the world goes by
You're thinkin' like a fool cause it's a case of do or die
Out there is a fortune waitin' to be had
You think I'll let it go you're mad
You've got another thing comin'

Maybe not the most majestic mantra to live by, perhaps.True all the same. So thanks for letting me cure some of my lingering little loneliness sharing these rambling monologues with you.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

God’s Own Chow Runner of Death


The way the U.S. Navy boot camp works, allowing others might be wildly different as I’ve never bothered to ask anyone, is that they bring in recruits like collecting bushels for Noah’s ark, pairs of groups of 80 collected and called “Divisions” every few days, such that each pair of Divisions were offset enough the various supporting faculty and facilities could facilitate the deluge of farm boys and urban have nots. Eventually enough Divisions would form for administration to set a graduation date for the lot of us, and while that meant we would all be getting out of boot camp, the date had a very loose and liberal definition of date, not like the prison terms so many of the recruits had dodged to enlist.

I lucked into a grouping that initiated a brand spanking new graduation cache. That meant I would finish boot camp, then get to enjoy a week or three of ancillary service before the actual, technical graduation happened. For the part of our division that volunteered (or were “volun-told”) to participate in the marching presentational portions of the graduation ceremony, this early slate meant they’d be front of the phalanx of new sailors paraded before whoever came to populate the bandstands for photo opportunities and / or book signings. In July. On asphalt. In San Diego. During a record high summer. Bonsai.

For the rest of us schleps quick to step backwards when volunteers were summoned, other tasks were assigned on the Idle Hands principle. Sensing my childhood in industrial scale kitchens with my parents, perhaps smelling the soap suds forever whetted into my very marrow, I got a carbon copy blue on fallow while paper scrap assignment, verily my first ever post boot camp completion orders, to muster at the back delivery dock of the base mess hall the next day at revelry, meaning, 4 am. I had to venture looking more stupid than the sunburn on my forehead already did for me and ask when the revelry actually occurred since the paper melting in my hand didn’t specify a time. The military is all about economy. Why update to Xerox machines if technology might go handheld and digital someday? And why specify a specific time for an occasion when the time might be subject to change, while the occasion never will?

As a House Yeoman, capitalization fully a self-worth assessment there, I already had the dubious honor of last to bed, first to rise. Until that point, first to rise translated into 5 am. Rest of the boys, aside from the two on watch for our tidy little “Ship”, were up at 6. Muster at 4 am meant up at 3 to shower and shave and dress. Shaving, there’s a funny thing. They required you to pass inspection by anyone of rank or title at any time for being clean shaven, and if you were a hairy sort, that could mean ducking into the barracks for a second shave mid-day to maintain your baby butt façade. Trouble is, when you’re late teens or early twenties, and in the last year of the almighty John Hughes aka 1989, shaving more than once a week with only a wish and a disposable Bic as your options means you break out like crazy, especially the beard at puberty set. Navy solution? Not reduce the inspection requirements, no way, not budging on that. Instead, afford anyone with a severe reaction to overly dragging a cheap, chipped blade across their cheeks every day at an hour earlier than their eyes can function a little slip of carbon copied paper that absolves them of the duty to shave until such time as their skin can be deemed field ready for a fresh barrage of navy blue (irony noted) plastic-handled Bic brand safety razors. Since skin gets all the more agitated about getting scraped in hot climates, a good two thirds of my Division sport wonderful, albeit youthful, Feel Real G.I. Joe beards and Movember ‘staches through a fair amount of my boot camp. Might have only been a handful of really delicate epidermal cases, however there were enough for me to resent them, because while my skin grew agitated and pimpled a bit too, I simply didn’t have the summer coat to bristle up enough acne to muster a staff doctor’s pity for a pass permitting my pubescent version of a pithy plumage.

The role of a House Yeoman is a strange thing I should take a moment to explain. Being fair, I’d gotten a tip from someone along the recruitment line, or might’ve been Reggie come to think of it, since he’d done the Army / National Guard version of boot camp, and surely they have their version of yeoman as well? Any rate, I had the term with little sense of what it meant firmly ensconced in my melon from the moment I stepped of the blue school bus in the dead of night to be stripped clean of belongings, dignity, personal style, and individuality. I clung to the word “yeoman” like a particularly buoyant bit of vessel left over from the Titanic my life had thus far turned out to be. And when given a chance to give the word some voice, some sound before the teeming masses, or as it were, before 79 other exhausted and delirious recruits and a few official types as yet unidentified clearly to the raggedy lot of us, when asked if any of us had ambitions, had desires from our enrollment into the nations Naval Forces, I exclaimed sure as thunder, “Yeoman!” Then amended, recalling Full Metal Jacket, “Yeoman, sir! Yes, sir!”

This, folks, is what both the terms “Tool” and “Keener” mean to infer, nigh, describe.

Shocked and bemused expressions abound, a few annoyed and more still puzzled. One cat named John looked me square in the eye and nodded slowly. He knew what I was on about, and raised his hand. A Master Chief, though not the submariner we’d eventually get saddled with, audibly sighed and pointed at John. “Yes?” John did this bob thing with his nose, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a practiced swipe of his southpaw, and said, “Me too, sir, if the spot isn’t filled already.” He waved a hand my way to indicate the prospective filler.

This had every recruit riveted, because while most of them had no idea what a Yeoman consist of, and frankly, neither had I, they all spot a pre-reality show conflict coming on, and welcomed a few moments wherein the focus of all authority figures had clearly become focused elsewhere.

The Master Chief calmly regard each of us, one after another with the slightest of eye and head swivel, before raising his gaze to speak such that the whole 80 and the next Division besides could hear, “Who here has been to college?”

Enough silence passed for me to think, “Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?” Pretty cutting edge sub-referencing for 1989. I hid my snicker and raised my hand. A few others popped up, though scant few, depressingly few, maybe five out of the eighty boys gathered there.

In the military, guess what happens when you have more education coming in than others? You get put in charge. John had a year on me, he became Field Yeoman with greater responsibilities, and as such, more hours to sleep and permanent exemption from watch duty. Another kid, tall handsome fireman from Roxanne fellow from one of those north east cities where everyone talks through their nose like a Kennedy, had a few months on me but passed on Yeoman and became a lead of some sort, a role that turned out to change hands as regularly as the people wearing the dubious mantel disappointed management. To his credit, the kid served that role the most, and when we finally graduated and marched across the Sahara parking lot before the well shaded bandstand, he held the mantel and had the expansive chest to make it look natural, and well earned. I had two years of college, didn’t matter a lick what I’d studied, as none of that had any relevance really to anything boot camp might instill. Or install. Just a measure of maturity, really, as was the following weight test that identified my studious ass to be morbidly obese and sent me to special fat boy afternoon workout sessions on an insane timeframe every afternoon for the following several weeks wherein I worked out with Navy Seals and Master Divers enjoying their rotations inland for low stress duty before rotating back out to the worst hellholes the world might manage to part cheeks to reveal.

Two years of college meant I could snap up the yeoman role the handsome bastard had passed on, and I became the new House Yeoman. A black kid from Mississippi whispered behind me, “Soun’ like he say house nigga to me.” I whispered back over my shoulder, “Like Uncle Tom.” Thinking I might’ve found a kindred spirit of something in the face of our collective adversity. “Like who?” He replied sounding annoyed. I’m pretty sure he ended up being the guy that stole my extra dress socks from the laundry cart, but who knows, could’ve been anybody...

House Yeoman is a strange role. While the Field Yeoman gets to always march at the head of the Division, gets to carry a snappy metal box with a clipboard for a lid that contains everything vital to anyone about our group or the individuals therein. He is the go to guy when the group is on the go, and getting to know him better over the subsequent weeks, he most certainly was the right man for the job, anyone else from our lot would have crumpled under the constant barrage of demands and requests, myself at 19 included.

House Yeoman has a vastly different laundry list of accountabilities. I then romanticized the job as being something like Radar’s role on M.A.S.H., though that projection later proved true as I began to liaison with other House Yeoman’s to swap and trade for various precious goods. Prison has cigarettes, lip gloss, and bad wine. Navy boot camp is far less nefarious, however after a few weeks away from easy access to the mall or Mom’s kitchen, things like coffee start to really matter, and those who have the beans control the universe. I facilitated exchanges of surplus toilet paper for extra carbon copied Chits, small squares of paper seemingly worth a Seaman’s weight in gold to any recruit nervously checking their front left pocket of their regulation denim shirt to discover they’ve lost, misplaced, or worse, given the laundry services one or both of their precious Chits.

Chits were just pieces of paper with spots for someone of authority to fill in your name, company, and then turn over to your Division authorities to let them know you were doing something wrong or stupid or otherwise unbecoming somewhere out on the base. However Chits were also like having the right papers for the Gestapo. Should anyone, for any whim or reason, stop you and you fail to furnish them two pristine folded Chits for them to peruse, you will face summary punishment well exceeding that of simply having your Chit pulled by an annoyed Chief looking to teach some snot nose a life lesson. Failure to provide both chits at any time meant negligence, and when one of the prime objectives of boot camp is teaching all the kids attention to detail, negligence is just short of murder.

So while my role meant getting up an hour before the rest of the recruits, and often getting to sleep a full hour or three after, I had in my possession an inexhaustible supply of Chits, and for all extents and purposes, that made me a sort of god. Not a major one demanding gifts or sacrifices or even kind words. Rather a minor deity that simply didn’t want to be hazed, or hit with bars of soap slung inside a sock, or pushed into the shower tree while my eyes were full of shampoo, or generally screwed with in any way. Having survived a childhood rife with neck-less bullies, I’d found my Chit security quite a wondrous thing, a power not to be taken for granted, nor exploited, just handled clearly, carefully, and with as much benign objectivity as I could muster. Simple rules, really. Replacement Chits weren’t given without questions. If taken, wait a week to see if the taker bothers to turn it in. Usually, I had on stern assurance from another Yeoman who was probably just guessing at basic human nature, the people taking Chits will simply throw them away and let a person get caught for being short a Chit, which punishes more severely anyway. Lost Chits would be replaced, however repeatedly lost Chits would not be. No one gets extra Chits. Having three on hand if stopped would sink us all. There were more rules and conditions, and yet it’s a wonder I never thought to turn a profit from the power I had. Apparently not being messed with or hazed sufficed. Definitely a life lesson in there somewhere.

The House Yeoman gets to know the managing staff better as well, particularly after hours, as that’s when they generally stay on hand to write up reports and check off check lists and whatnot. My Division had three, a First Class, a Master Diver, and over them a Master Chief dry docked from submarine duty and a bit scary to anyone who met him, though generally a very nice guy all told, maybe a bit lonely really, and definitely intimidated by the Master Diver. Ever seen Dirty Jobs? Imagine Mike Rowe as a blonde and you’d have the Master Diver. He warrants a blog post some other day, what a character. The First Class fellow, a really nice guy that could easily pass as Jimmy Smits’ cousin, he left his professional shot faux leather triptych fold up erotica photography shoot collectable keepsake of his wife in the top drawer of his desk, same desk where most of the Yeoman supplies were kept, something a group of young men in an office will of course tastefully discuss with all the best above board terms. Finding out later that he had been in the middle of a nasty divorce throughout the course of our 8 weeks plus of boot camp certainly added a strange twist to my perception of his strange faux leather fold out pin up. You’re getting a divorce from a woman, and you want to remember how sexy she could be? Different strokes, I guess, just left me feeling sad we’d ogled her or made any comments, especially since I’m the one that found it. I could have hidden it better, put it somewhere else, left the guy a polite note telling him the House Yeoman and Quartermaster also use that desk, and neither of us has seen a woman romantically or otherwise in a very long time, if ever. Certainly not one with a caboose like that. Or heels. Or that pink feather boa thing. Or what she was doing with it.  Ahem.

So after we’d completed our eight weeks of boot camp training, we were put into a holding pattern and given jobs. Mine entailed working in the mess hall kitchen. Fortunately, after my first week of mustering at 4am I moved to evening shift and no longer had to effectively go without sleep since I also had to maintain my admittedly far more lax Yeoman duties.

My first week, working predominantly with a fully immigrant Pilipino staff that were gaining citizenship through military service, I learned how to step, fetch, clear, move, deliver, and restock at a speed and capacity I’d previously never experienced or fathomed possible. Everywhere I turned something seemed ready to lunge out and scald, scour, scrape, slice, or slip me into a coma. I felt like a cartoon as I spun around busy, efficient staff cooks trying not to drop massive pans full of scrambled eggs from massive plastic sacks on their thankfully short stature head heights. I ran pans of still spitting and spattering bacon, pans of seething and frothing fried potatoes, strainers of steamed green beans, heaps of emptied, boiler broiled bins and pans and plates and utensils, seemingly catching them in slow motion, plucking them from the air as I passed busy stations like collecting spent shell casings, efficient as each trip delivered food one way, recovered emptied vessels and spent instruments the other.

After a week my proficiency and perceived lack of required supervision got me bumped to the evening shift. This moved me out of prep territory, as well as missing the breakfast riots all together. I showed up fresh for the lunch rush and stayed through to closing, working clean up instead of prep, and helping polish off any leftover food deemed too little or old to bother storing for the following day. Late shift meant sleeping in, meant missing breakfast, so leftovers were a welcome treat most days.

As with any service industry, there are active times, and lulls between. Ask anyone in the restaurant industry, or read some Anthony Bourdain, and you’ll quickly spot the insanity of the rush and lull mentality, the gallows’ humor disposition that existence inspires. After two months of alien living as a Navy recruit, I felt strangely at home in the kitchen, running chow and cleaning gear and subbing in to pump suds and flush countless trays and utensils through the mammoth dish washing machines. After a couple weeks in the kitchens, I thought I might have found my place, and after a couple more, I graduated and got sent to another kitchen to work on another leg of the base to wait for the next phase of my training to begin, the class that would teach me to hunt submarines from the surface, to kill the silent killers, sink the submerged, torpedo the titans.

During my four weeks in the general mess hall, I wore paper hats that were similar to taking two legal envelopes and attaching their ends, then filling the gap between them with gauze mesh. After a week or so of wearing through those, I had the idea of drawing on them. The lull between lunch and dinner had little to do for the night crew, our cleanup from lunch with full staff went swiftly, and the rest of our big job came during and after dinner. The afternoons were an hour or so sitting around tables listening to Sinead O’Conner sing that sing Prince wrote for her every half hour while guys pushed the breeze around and wish aloud repeatedly that someone had a deck of cards or some dice.

I picked up a ballpoint pen somewhere along the way, not as easy a feat as you might suspect on a basic training military base where everything is disposed towards frugality and resource management, attrition is a lesson learned quickly, as is spatial management – who knew that much denim and cotton could fit into such tiny metal drawers or a single sea bag?

I began drawing on my hat, no real plan, thinking about running chow, how exhilarating that gig had actually proved to be, and that I liked skulls. Something you should appreciate about the military, we share a similar aesthetic disposition to strong iconography, the objectification of buxom beauties on the noses of notable machines, and a liberal use of skulls. And tentacles, the Navy Cargo Handlers have a patch design I completely have patch envy over. Half paying attention, half toe tapping to Sinead, I drew a Don Martin style sprinting skeleton seaman wearing his working denims and dog bowl cap running a tray of chow that trailed a stream of gunk well behind it. I looked up and noticed I had something of an audience. Couple days later, I had requests and a stack of hats waiting to be enhanced. And for all that art, all that goofy art, no one said a thing.

No one complained about breaking some foodie hat regulation, or that the drawings were obnoxious.

A few people mentioned they’d never seen anyone do that before, draw on their disposable hats, make them worth showing off. Especially after I realized my original had a short shelf life what with all the steam and sweat and grease and all. I recalled patching bits in Architecture studio with packaging tape before a jury to hide breaks and tears while shoring up structural integrity. I used my Yeoman powers to trade another Yeoman for a couple rolls of the stuff and scored some scissors from the mess hall supply closet, as well as more pens, and I recreated an improved replica of my dying original hat and taped it up to help preserve it’s freshness for prosperity. The packaging tape trick is a keeper, still use that today, just avoid the cheap stuff, it bubbles up and / or wrinkles on itself too much.

Before sealing up the illustration in a protective sheath of transparent adhesive tape, I added a monicker to my mayhem, “God’s Own Chow Runner of Death”. Strangely, the Pilipino shift wranglers I worked with and for loved that touch, maybe the Christian aspect, maybe the sarcasm over the quality of the chow. Who knows? Those hard working bastards found my stuff funny when they looked to really need a laugh, and they didn’t bust me down, win-win.

During my four weeks working in the mess hall, I probably contributed to some forty hats or more, and saw others take up the idea until one out of every three hats on the line had something on it. Not always something good, but something, and like nose art on bombs, there’s some great mirth evident throughout, even if the taste is utterly subjective. Other than genitalia or vulgarities, pretty much anything went on the embellishments. A lot of sports teams, though I enjoyed seeing teams I’d never heard of, local teams from whatever piss water Podunk town these crazy cretins had cruised, crawled, or crash landed in from.

Later when I moved on to the ASW base (Anti Submarine Warfare), and took on full time dish washing duties, I made a new hat called, “God’s Own Dishwasher of Death”. One night of high power suds took care of that hat despite the tape, steam is packaging tape’s mortal enemy after all.

I’ve attempted to homage / recreate the bookend images from memory, a fun exercise and strange sort of time travel, though I should try again to do it properly, maybe ask the culinary school by work if I can borrow a couple paper hats, a ballpoint, and a metal table for a couple hours sometime. Ambiance is everything, after all. Put some Sinead on the PA. I’m sorry I don’t have the originals, they would be far more interesting to see, I’m sure.

Couple links of note I had to refer to for some clarification. A very rosy though basically (pardon pun) accurate description of what Navy boot came is from geek legend Gamergirl; and a very spot on bit of information from a larger series on About Dot Com.

I went through all that and never clued in that the 80 kids were considered a Division, or that our bunkhouse was considered a Ship. Makes sense, just never caught on to that. Weird, considering how many other details are burned into my mind’s eye. The jokes about why we stenciled our names on our clothes, and where we placed them. The kid that looked like a young Michael Keaton and turned up with crabs pretty much to the day the Master Chief said folks would that shacked up with unscrupulous company before shipping out to boot camp. The awful painting of a hydrofoil ship I painted on one of our Division’s flags because the Master Chief Submariner didn’t want to be outdone by the other flag the Master Diver had picked, an Iron Maiden Trooper painted by a madly talented kid from Michigan I had no hopes of besting with my clumsy, cartoonish applications of acrylics.

But calling our long quarters a Ship? Nope, that is something brutally obvious that I never actually caught on to. So much for attention to detail.