Chasing UFOs from Treehouses


This one’s for John Mundt, Esq, who climbed to the great treehouse this week.

This is the story about chasing UFOs.  Not in the philosophical sense, but in literal terms.  You see, some people can point to a general time in their life that they grew into adulthood … a coming of age time, per se.  Some can look to a particular winter or summer.  I point to a single night in my life.  A night that, after it was over, things just seemed different.

Mid-summer nights along the Mississippi are always humid.  During the day, it can suck the energy out of you in a heartbeat leave you running for whatever air condition you can find, even if it ends up to be educational like going to a library.  During the night as the air cools, the humidity turns into droplets.  They stay above the still hot ground but still drift above the rooftops and street lights.  This night in good old Prairie du Chien, WI (53821), the heat of the day broke, and the fog remained thick at that higher level.  You could see it running up the bluffs around the town in ribbons.  After the hot days, this fog, while eerie, was refreshing.

I was pretty aware of this because I was already bored out of my mind.

There were three of us in the treehouse.  Eric was pretty much the ringleader of the group.  He was, of course, the coolest of us in his own way.  Eric was in rock bands before there were bands for him to rock out with.  He was an artist that could blow your mind with wicked, cool stuff.  He was our idea man, give him a couple minutes and he’d come up with something fun to do.  The treehouse was at John’s house.  John was more worldly, having lived a while in the foreign land of New Jersey.  He was a cartoonist in the coolest way possible … in that, he made really cool cartoons, ones that should be printed in comic books even.  Cartoons that made you think feel, laugh and know that there was more going on that just sock monkeys.  I was the third guy in the treehouse.  I was the guy that laughed at the stuff they found funny even if I didn’t understand it.

Tonight was a critical night for a significant project.  Three of us, Eric, John, and I, got together to finalize the script to a movie.  Not just a movie … THE Movie.  A movie we planned to write, shoot, edit, and release this summer before school started. Eric & I started talking about it as far back as June.  It was now mid-July.  We had been working on it for weeks, nearly months, and we knew if we didn’t knock out the script that night we would never get it done.  The story was complex as it was action-packed.  It followed a young man who learned to be a warrior in his desire to revenge the death of his father.  Where we were going to set ourselves apart was that our movie would have a twist.  In the super original screenplay we agreed this movie would have the warrior attack the enemy, push him to the brink of defeat, and scream “you killed my father” when the villain would say in the most original line ever in movies,  “no, I am your father”.  I think I was supposed to play the older teacher that happened to be named ‘Ben’ or something. 

It had become late, near midnight.  That was common for us.  I think my sleep schedule for that summer was to be in bed by 4AM and wake at Noon.  For years to come, whenever I spent time with John in particular, it meant long nights.  More than once, I remember visiting him at his parent’s house and we would sit in his basement drinking creme sodas until the sun came up, and we had to be somewhere on normal human time.  The groups may change who would meet, but we would talk for hours, we would listen for hours, we would laugh for hours.  I remember hearing great albums or reading great books, or seeing great graphic novels – all for the first time in those late hours with John and Eric, and so many other friends to come over the years.

Back to that night though, as we discussed scenes, dialog, and whether or not we should raid the creme soda stash we had; I got bored and started off to the sky.  By that time, it was about midnight.  The city, for the most part, was quiet – which is not much to say since PdC wasn’t much of a ‘loud’ city to begin with.  From behind me, Eric was doing most of the writing.  John was helping out, but he was starting to struggle a little bit too.  I was the one with the rotten attention span, so I had moved on to whatever would distract me.

From over the top of the houses across the street, I saw a blue light.  Think about if you ever saw a laser show at some cheesy low budget place where they fire the laser through water or a smoke machine.  Think about that laser show where you can almost see every droplet, but you can definitely see the light.  In that hanging fog of summer, soundlessly, this blue light danced and zipped around in the sky.  There was an intoxicating feel to the light, not like a moth to a flame kind of way, but the random nature of it.  There was no rhythm to the light, and the way it broke through the fog seemed to be complex as well.

At first, I was the only one who was watching this, mind you.  At this point of time, the other two were working on the boy warrior gets his father’s lightsaber … erm … sword.  Testing the waters, I thought I would draw attention to the light.

“Hey guys,” I said, “You see that blue light up that way?”

John was the one who said the thing that was floating at the back of my head.  “It kind of looks like a UFO.”

I don’t even know if he looked that long at the blue light, but Eric was the most focused on getting this movie done.  “It’s a bug zapper,” he stated.

Let me just say this … As a forty-something guy writing this, I understand that calling a blue light a ‘UFO’ is a little dumb.  Let’s just throw this out there, when you are a kid … anything can be a UFO.  This is the 80s, mind you, where we get our weird ideas about the world from late-night TV, wild crazy rumors, and on rare occasions the forgotten media called ‘books’.  We were fascinated by UFOs, in the same way, were fascinated by other myths like Bigfoot, Ghosts, and ‘Girls that actually liked us’.  This in all to say, there was a subtly to this discussion.  I didn’t say the blue light was a UFO, but didn’t discount the idea either — in fact, part of the reason I brought it up was that pure fact that the option was there.  John, mentioning it was a UFO wasn’t him jumping on the alien bandwagon, but giving a bit of a joke where we all would have heard the possibility to be there.  Eric wasn’t the skeptic either, he just wanted to get the damned movie script done.

We would have gotten back to work too — if it wasn’t for one thing.  I was the one who noticed it.

I said, “If it was a bug zapper, shouldn’t we hear the bugs be zapped?”

Honestly, after all these years, I can’t be sure exactly how much longer we stayed in that treehouse.  All I can say is that in my memory … we jumped!!!   Literally leaping out of that treehouse, we were on the hunt.  Movie be damned, we were out to find the source of that light.

We were on the hunt for the UFO.

I mean … if it wasn’t a bug zapper, there was only one possibility for it.

Running out to the street, we realized that this wasn’t one or two houses over.  It just takes a little running around you would expect the light to look closer and closer, but that wasn’t the case.  Reaching the corner on foot, simple triangulation told us that it wasn’t near us at all.  We realized that wherever this source was, we would need to move and move quickly.  So we hopped into my car and went driving after it.

Now, it’s worth stopping at this point for another key bit of subtly.  I said “we hopped in the car” as part of this “coming of age story”.

Did I mention this happened when I was old enough to drive?

Yeah, actually, I had been driving for nearly six months.  I was, in fact, a few months from turning 17; just before my junior year in high school.  Eric had his permit, also about to be a junior; in fact, we were sweating over the start of football two-a-days, that was the real crunch to get this movie done.  John’s worldly nature was because he had graduated high school years before this adventure and actually was home from cartoonist college in New Jersey; so John could definitely drive.

Somehow I was the driver.  We moved quickly in the direction where the blue light was flashing.  It’s flickering continued, no more or no less brilliant, just continuous.  What was curious was that we didn’t seem to get any closer to the light – it was a distance off, and whatever was making it had to be fairly brilliant.

If you aren’t from Prairie du Chien, here’s something about the topography.  The area is partly carved by the last ice age and partly carved by the Mississippi river so that the town is nestled in a treelined valley.  Where the hills rise up is mostly limestone, and as such could be quarried.  PdC had a massive quarry at the edge of town.

That’s where the light was coming from.

The blue flashes were flickering from deep inside the quarry floor.  We couldn’t see where specifically, but we couldn’t miss it.  Anyone in the town would be able to see it.  Since we were the only ones on the street at that time of night, it was like we were heading to some undiscovered world.  The long drive up to the quarry was full of questions, excitement, craziness.  We knew there would be a gate, knew it would be hard to get into the quarry, and the one thing we didn’t want was to get caught … by whom, we didn’t know … so we parked the car down the hill in front of some homes.

We climbed the small hill heading up to the gate, keeping low like uneducated ninjas.  The light now was joined by sound.  We heard hissing and burning, seemingly in time with the flashes.  The closer we got the more it seemed like it was coming from a single source.  A small area.  Not a massive object.

We came over a ridge, and we saw it.

There, in the center of the quarry …

A man was welding pipe.

The blue was from the burn of the welder.  In the midnight light, it burned bright enough to blast out across the entire part of town.

Needless to say, we were let down.  More me than anything.  It seemed as though all that hope that we might actually see a UFO ended with something that was earthbound.  We didn’t spend long there, it didn’t make sense watching something that at the end wasn’t all that interesting.  Hindsight should have had me challenging why someone is welding something at midnight, but that wasn’t on my mind.

As we were returning to the car, we came across a problem.   The houses near where the quarry was included in that were owned by a family we knew and knew well.  The father was now outside, smoking a pipe.  It didn’t look like he was there to stop us, nor did it seem as though he saw us, but there would be no way to get to the car without him seeing us.

As we thought about our options, challenged ourselves to come up with a plan, I was the one that just said: “Why don’t we walk down there, get in the car, and leave.”

The other two weren’t keen on this idea and seemed taken aback.  For me, the idea was just simple, and I explained, “We aren’t doing anything wrong.  We aren’t in trouble.  Let’s just go.”

So we did.  We walked to our car, got in it, and left.  The man didn’t stop us.  Didn’t say anything to us later.

And with that, a mystery of life was over.  When you are a kid in a small town, everything you do is under a spotlight – so you are always on the verge of being in trouble.  When you are an adult, you are under the spotlight, but you take accountability for it.

That’s really where the story ends, but that’s what was so defining about it.  There was no UFO.  There was no great mystery.  There was no trouble.

There were three guys who went on a hunt and returned empty-handed.

Albeit to a treehouse.

We finished that movie, and by finished we spend every waking hour the last week before school shooting every bit of film we can – then spending the rest of the time watching what we shot to laugh at it.  Eric stayed loyal to that movie, and about ten years later he gave me a videocassette of the “Untamed World of the Savage”, complete with updated B-roll and original soundtrack.  Before graduating we made other movies like Monkey See Monkey Die.  Monkey See Monkey Die 2.  Monkey See Monkey Die 3 (there was a pattern).  Monkey See Monkey Die 3 the Sequal.  Finally reaching our pinnacle of filmmaking with The Adventures of Mitchey-Poo Man – a superhero film later rebooted into a film called Infinity Wars: Endgame).

That night was really an end of time in many ways.  Before we really got crazy on the movie, I went to a science camp, and when I came back it felt like things were more about the responsibility of finishing the film.  Also, that summer my last in Prairie du Chien.  The following year I started marching Drum Corps, and my summers at home were days rather than months.  That continued until I got a real job as a real grown-up.   

Things changed for Eric too because he got a girlfriend.  The goal we all hoped to achieve and seemed challenged to reach.

John continued on.  We didn’t know it at the time, but John had this knack of taking people under their wing.  Stealing a line from Eric Gilitzer – John built treehouses for kids he never met.  He was the king of the uncool people of the world, and by being around him we were cooler than we thought we could be.  He treated you as a friend, when he was actually your mentor.  He watched out for us, gave us a voice, and showed us things we wouldn’t ever see.  It’s been years since I have seen John.  Much, much longer since I spent nights talking to midnight.  But I can’t think of experiences that made me happier than spending time with him.

I want to say tons more about John, but I struggle to.  It’s hard to summary someone like that.

But I can tell stories.

So this is the one I chose to tell.

Throw Momma From the Train


When given the chance, I would argue that the greatest movie about amateur authors and movie vehicles is the 1987 classic Throw Momma From the Train starring Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, and Anne Ramsey (as Momma).  It’s not only hilarious, continuously quotable, but nails the pain that a writer can go through when they can’t write  … I mean, is the night hot, is it cold, is it wet or is it dry … or is the Night Sultry.

With that introduction, hello from the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.  As in, I am literally writing this blog while sitting on a train called the Pacific Surfliner northbound from San Diego to Los Angeles (and continuing on to San Luis Obispo).  While it is slightly random that I am writing this blog today, the intent isn’t random, and the outcome is what it’s all about.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I am in the midst of another attempt at NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, an opportunity for thirty days to make writing a priority.  Previously, I sued this activity to actually try to write a novel, but this year it is just about the writing process and to reignite the love I have for creative writing in general.  The visible goal is to reach fifty thousand words in the month of November.  My choice to embrace all things creative this year includes this blog, as well as a mess of short stories and edits.  During NaNoWriMo, there are events set up to help encourage the process.  Most of which, called write-ins, give writers a place to meet, maybe chat about what they do, but mostly to sit in a quiet place and crank out words.

Today’s Write-in offered up was essentially one in three parts.  The second performed in conjunction with a San Diego NaNoWriMo group (who didn’t show up), and it’s bookends happening on the Pacific Surfliner.  In other words, I took a train to San Diego to write for a little bit then rode back all on the same day.

Besides the functionality of the idea, it is a pretty cool way to spend a day.  For those of us committed to NaNoWriMo, we would need significant time on a late November Saturday to make it happen.  In theory, this was a perfect way to set ourselves up a good way to get things done.  The train from LA to San Diego takes about three hours, and with about a three-hour layover, it meant that we could be only somewhat productive and kill it in this program.

In all honesty, I wasn’t productive.  Our train was late, but that really wasn’t an excuse.  The real problem was that it was sensory overload.  Of course, I’ve ridden a train before, just not here in Southern California.  Heck, much of the route was old news to me too, just not from the train.  It was amazing to see things like Angel Stadium in Anaheim, or the towers in downtown Irvine, or the dirigible hangers in Tustin; but from this angle and this direction, it was interesting, all of it.

Then the train hit the coast.  To say the train goes along the coast is pretty on the nose.  For long stretches, the only thing between the train and the ocean is beach sand and short bits of it.  If we weren’t moving at a fast rate, you would see the look of fear on the surfers.  Southbound, during the late morning and early afternoon, swimmers and sunbathers were enjoying the seventy-degree weather.  Northbound out of San Diego, it was the photographers capturing the sunset just out of San Diego, and then the early indications of folks making a camp on the beach.

We told stories about Throw Momma from the Train today, because of its applicability.  Quoting it too.  “Owen doesn’t need friends he has his momma.”  or “I’m going to kill the B, you want something?”  “Could you get me a Chunky.”  or just “OWEN”.  Yet in my head, the thing that keeps sticking there is the look of Larry (Billy Crystal) and he is crashing near the end of patience close to the end of the movie, hovering over a typewriter frustrated that no amount of craziness is going to let him find that part to be productive.  Then it comes.,

Needless to say, I wasn’t productive, but I didn’t care.  I sat back and watched the world go by from the top of a double-decker train car.  The color of the sky changing, the gentle rock of the path mesmerizing, and the challenges of my life put on hold for a few hours.  I am not so rough of shape with NaNoWriMo that I need be frustrated by a less productive day, quite the opposite.  I needed this.  More than anything, I needed this day.

Besides, I have six days left to go.

Engineer Mode


I have what I call “Engineer Mode”.  I don’t like Engineer Mode, mostly because of what must trigger Engineer Mode, but it exists and I have to accept the fact it exists.  I went pretty heavy towards Engineer Mode today, and now that the wine bottles are open I can start to embrace it.

Engineer Mode starts from an idea that was proposed to me almost a decade ago.  One of my managers at work was discussing training they had, where it was identified that people can act a certain way when the world is good, right, and regular – but when stress levels rise, they act in a completely different way.  I think there isn’t a person reading this blog that wouldn’t agree with this idea.  I mean, the whole concept of “losing your S##t” over something is based on that idea.  I’ve seen folks go insane in moments of stress, or shut down, or just become awesome.  When you realize we all change in those kinds of modes, you can start to ask yourself what happens when you go into that condition.

I go into Engineer Mode.

I am normally an easy going guy who thinks he’s way funnier than he really is.  I am the guy that is chill, the guy who doesn’t care much about things, or the guy who can laugh at himself first more than anything.

When I come under stress, all of those emotions shut down.  It’s an instinct to a certain point.  Part of that is because laughing or joking around in those situations isn’t going to help anything.  Crying neither.

My mindset becomes about problem-solving.  If facing a stressful, difficult situation, I want to get out of it.  The only way out of it is to analyze the possible outcomes, look for solutions that correct or prevent the problem, and implement changes that take me down that path.  In other words, I engineer a solution.

Today I was faced with a series of situations where Engineering Mode clicked on.  I was traveling to Denver by way of Burbank than Phoenix for an audit I am performing tomorrow.  Because it was an early flight, I dropped Auggie the Doggie off at the Pet Hotel last night, but before I did I noticed he had a bit of a red mark under his eye.  I let them know and left him there.  When my plane arrived in Phoenix for a 2-hour layover, I had a voicemail from the pet hotel – his eye had grown ‘poofy’ overnight, and they moved him to the Vet that was in the store (not my regular vet, but I wasn’t complaining).  When I called in, they hadn’t examined him yet, but I was able to talk to enough people to authorize further treatment.  Meanwhile, folks at work were sending me common work-related questions; so I needed to find a place to log in.  Doing so found that a recent update to our security didn’t go as planned, and I couldn’t get logged into my computer.  The entire layover was now spent troubleshooting with limited success and no new news on the pup.

Engineering Mode put me in an active work through the issues at hand.  Calling the Vet, troubleshooting my work laptop, dealing with the layover.  Those were actions with results that I could manage.  So that’s what I did.  That’s how Engineer Mode works.  Deal with the problem ahead of you, no emotions and no reactions.

Where I let it get to me is when things start to fall outside of my control and/or I have no actions to take.  Without going into detail, the vet that Auggie stayed at was having a ‘stressful day’ … something that the actual Doctor almost hinted to something traumatic, so you knew it had to be bad.  Still, I had to take the initiative to call them for updates.  Normally I would be going out of my mind in those situations because it requires me to rely on someone else to do something.  Not today, because — for one, I was on a plane, what was I going to do; and for two, I had the laptop to deal with, plus driving to a hotel, plus planning for an audit tomorrow, plus everything else going on.  Engineer Mode had control.

Engineer Mode does suck when those actions become out of my control.  Like anyone, I can get swarmed under by life.  For me, it’s regularly related to the things in my life I can’t control.  Most of the time its circumstance; some of the time it’s people.  That’s part of the challenge, I guess, recognizing that as life piles on to us, we don’t let the anchor of our own imposed emotions weigh us down and take us under.  I’m not saying I am an expert from avoiding that kind of outcome, far from it, but it sure does feel like when I can shut down the parts of me that want to cry my way through a problem it seems to make it all move quicker.

As far as the pup is concerned, it’s something kind of minor we will watch.  It turns out, he had a yeast infection in his ear.  He was trying to scratch it, and regularly missed thereby scratching his eye.  There’s an ulcer now in his eyelid, and they will measure it to track it.  Plus he is going to get meds to take.  Plus he will wear the CONE OF SHAME!   In the end, it’s going to be some minor things to pull him through until I can get him poked and prodded by his real vet next week.

Plus I got my laptop running.

When things resolve like this, It’s good, and I am happy.  In fact, it’s an excuse to have a glass of wine with dinner.  Maybe two.  Maybe three.  Engineer Mode also has its way of balancing out my brain.  Dealing with stuff like this means I can enjoy when I let emotions, concern, and happiness back in my life.  So, I can accept Engineer Mode for what it is.

Maybe the fourth glass of wine; I mean, I did skip lunch.


And the Band Played On


This morning, I am recovering from one of the longest band judging days of my career.  Thirty-two performing units spread over nearly 14 hours in Oxnard, California.  Usually shows like this will spread the bands across multiple classifications with band sizes ranging from the smallest to the largest – but this had nearly two-thirds in the same class, specifically the smallest class.  Half of the books & papers in my bag are soaking wet from the constant layer of fog that rolled in last night; including my IPad Pro that shouldn’t have survived the night.  My knees are swollen, my fingers still feel chilled, and I am sunburned with sunglasses shaped raccoon eyes.

And I can’t wait to do it again next week.

For you long-time Bear Feeders, you may know I am talking about my most ‘profitable’ of hobbies.  I adjudicate marching band competitions in the fall.  I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, starting off in the midwest before expanding my work as I moved around the country.  Also, your long-time Bear Feeders would be wondering what I am talking about it now.  Prior to this year, the lastest I have ever worked was the first weekend in November, and that was only on limited locations.  Here it is the second weekend in November, and not only am I working, but I’m also not done.

For those of you in cold weather parts of the country, you might find going this late odd – but then again, cold weather is the detail you need to embrace.  Scheduling a State Championship in Wisconsin in November is like scheduling an outdoor hockey game in July.  Indiana had their’s last week, but they had a dome, so bully for them.  Here in California, they can go this late because the weather is warm – even though last year had cancellations due to fires and smoke.  That being said, just because shows are going on this late doesn’t mean I am working them … but I am working on them now.

Let me give you the longer version of how this is all rolling out.  I got into band judging shortly after I stopped my career as a performer and instructor in the mid-90s.  I loved being a performer, but the activity had age limits; then as I dragged my heels to graduate from college I kept instructing marching arts organizations.  I couldn’t keep that up long term because … well, the pay was nothing (like $75 a week for 18 hour days seven days a week).  A friend suggested I get into judging, and invited me to tag along to a clinic.  I walked in the door, met the guy that does show scheduling (a man named Dick Turner, and still a good friend), and without even asking my background he asked if I was available on a given date.  That’s how I got my first gig (1996 FJ Reitz Invitational, Evansville, Indiana).    I did a couple training shows or trialing, including the most brutal day I ever was a part of (41 performing units, including extended instructional critique – a day that began at 9am and ended at 3am).

All of those shows back then and all my shows I judged until 2014 was working for the Central States Judges Association (CSJA).  CSJA is a venerable fraternity who established much of the expectations for a marching band judge in its early days and continues to push for excellence across the markets they support.  I was lucky to find them because the group was awash with long-standing judges who are focused on the training and development of others.  I knew if I wanted work and I wanted to continue to work in this little hobby that I loved, I had to always keep getting better – CSJA provided that to me for literally decades.

The only problem was one of location.  Central States Judges Association is located in, you might guess, the central states.  While shows will pay to fly people in, if they don’t have to they won’t.  This only gets worse the further you have to fly and the more risk of arriving late.  It wasn’t so bad when I lived in Kansas, but when I moved to Alaska, the work nearly dried up.  Moving back to Boston restarted things, but I had to supplement my CSJA work with something else.  That was the first time I started working independently – but only for a single season for the NESBA (New England Scholastic Band Association).   Besides one other purely independent gig I did more as a favor, I still remained with CSJA soley.

Then I moved to California.

California’s marching band circuit is HUGE!  Massive!  In fact, much of it is centralized around the counties near where I live.  All I really need to do was to get a foot in the door, and I could start to find work.  The last couple of years, the foot has slowly made it in the door.

In the last three years, I’ve done work for the Western Band Association (WBA).  This is mostly a circuit for Bay-Area and Southern California bands; though there are a small group of units in the Las Vegas area, and some shows (including their Super Show which I was able to judge last year).  For reasons I am not clear enough to blog about (but I have my guesses), the circuit attracts some of the higher level bands regardless of band size.  It also includes some of the higher-level judges as well, many of which are flown in from across the country blazed with their nationally recognized names and resumes.  One of the shows I did this year, I shared a press box with so people who had worked the biggest of competitions, that I felt like a mouse amongst wolves.  One conversation even went:

Me: Hi, I’m Mitch
Him:  Hi, I’m XXXX
Me:  Yeah I know … I kinda recognize you from talking on my movie theatre screen

Not that is not sarcasm, yes that happened.

Yet the WBA work was limited as well.  So at the encouragement from a couple of other locals, I contacted the Southern California School Band & Orchestra Association (SCSBOA) who are currently considering me as a possible member to judge regularly.  And by “considering” I mean, I am 90% sure I am judging their Finals Championship next week – as in the biggest show of the year.  SCSBOA is a circuit that is Asteroid – small in size but massively dense.  In the midwest, including in Wisconsin where I grew up, it wasn’t out of the question to drive 4 or 5 hours to the closest competition and that show only drew 10-12 bands.  SCSBOA yesterday alone had 6 shows within an hour-and-a-half drive of any band, and the shows all were well over twenty competing units.  My thirty-two band show was massive … I mean massive.  This during a week when some of the bands competed for two, three, or four times during the week.

For the most part, next weekend’s the competitive season.  Not just here, but across the country.  This includes the National Championship in Indiana and State Championships anywhere where it hadn’t been decided already.  Overall, through the three circuits I worked, I had a good season, one with six shows that nearly spread over three months.  I saw a lot of great bands and a lot of fantastic performances.

I just get the opportunity to do one more.


This Counts


Today is November Seventh, Two Thousand, and Nineteen.  I am writing my blog to tell you specifically, right now, here and now, as I write, that it is November.  November, as it turns out is the National Novel Writing Month, or known colloquially (which means in common terms) as NaNoWriMo.  During this month, participants attempt to write enough words to create first drafts of a novel; specifically with the goal of fifty thousand words across the thirty days of November.

Which if you are asking yourself why I seem to be throwing a bunch of garbage words intentionally with the unintentional garbage words … I’m counting these as part of my fifty thousand.

All honesty, some of you who might be long term Bear Feeders may remember that this isn’t the first time I have posted about this event.  NaNoWriMo has been a bit of crazy I’ve been attempting going back six years.  Like I mentioned, the concept is simple – try to support the creative process by encouraging participants to crank out as many words as possible.  For most writers, especially those new or wanna-be writers, the hardest thing is to get started with words on paper.  NaNoWriMo becomes that vehicle to make it happen.  The process encourages volume over quality – some call it “word vomit”.  The program comes with methods and tools to encourage creativity and bonding with others in the process to help work towards the shared word goal.

That being said, the goal of NaNoWriMo is not easy.  If you break it down, 50,000 words over 30 days mean you need to write 1667 words a day.  When this blog post is over it will be about eight to nine hundred words and while easy for me to write will take about forty-five minutes to complete.  That means that I have to find about a half-hour to an hour to put down enough words to reach that 1667 a day goal.  Then once the clock strikes midnight, I do it again tomorrow.  Then average that for 30 days.  Thirty days that always includes three weeks of work, travel for work, band judging, and Thanksgiving holidays.  It’s not easy, in fact, it’s downright insanity.

That’s not to say I haven’t been successful.  In fact, I’ve reached 50,000 the last 4 years in a row.  There were obstacles along the way in all of those too.  Like once I quit my job and put my house up for sale during NaNoWriMo.  Once I had one of the biggest professional chew-outs of my career while living out of a hotel room.  Heck, one year I had surgery during NaNoWriMo and still met the final goal.  Making it always required focus, diligence, and routine.

When I get asked why I do it, I tend to answer “it’s an excuse to drink too much coffee in the morning, and too much whiskey at night”.  More serious questions are if I am actually writing a novel.  The truth of that is yes and no.  Every year I do NaNoWriMo, I am trying to write a novel, but it’s not like my intent is to output a novel I want to publish let alone share with anyone.  For starters, remember that this process is about a first draft – and a first draft is horrific.  You turn off spell checkers, grammar checkers, and any logic in your head.  To take that and turn it into something publishable means you have to grind it through your own editing, critiquing by peers, professional editors, and then rejection after rejection after rejection.  I am not saying I may be interested going down that path, but right now what is fun for me is creating these stories – so anything else is something I can wait on.

The problem for me, and the problem specifically this year is things have changed in my life.  As some of you know, I had a bit of a health scare this summer.  With that, my doctor has set me up with a new cocktail of prescriptions; some of which have affected my ability to write.  I mentioned before, NaNo is about focus and diligence, and both of those were most affected.  Many times I find myself staring at a blank screen with just a few lines typed and the ideas still locked away in my brain.  I love the creative process in NaNo, but fear I am losing the ability to make that come out.  Heck — while I was writing this paragraph I got distracted by someone sending me notes about CubeSats (thank you, Jeremy Phillips).  So my goal with NaNo this year is trying to find that spark again.

To do that, I am making everything count.  Not just the novel I was working on, but this blog, side stories, or whatever comes my way.  In fact, the other night I was driving my car, got an idea on a different novel, and essentially pulled up a chair to crank out a 1200 word treatment to get the voice of the main character.  Now I cam considering throwing out my current novel and starting this one from scratch even though I am six days into NaNo.  I am trying to write every day, but that will be dang near impossible (especially this Saturday, when I have a seventeen hour day of band judging).    Also, while I have always gone home for Thanksgiving, I usually came back with a few NaNoWriMo days to spare to finish up – but my flight home is on the 30th this year, so the battle there is real.  In the end, my goal is to write every day, find the spark, find what I love about writing, and let the rest of it come.

In the meantime, this counts.  All Nine hundred and sixty-three words, or sixty-five, … now sixty-seven.    Whoops, I did an edit, it dropped to sixty-six.

Okay. that’s it.

Nine eight three.

Straight Line to the River


I grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.  Since this is a blog, most of you can just open a new window and google the town, see where it’s at; but when I am standing around talking to someone it’s a challenge, sometimes, trying to describe to people where I grew up.  Some of you, my parents, in particular, know exactly where I grew up … right down to the corner they made me stand in when I was in trouble.  For others, it’s a lot harder.  People from Los Angeles don’t exactly explore the upper midwest, and can’t picture the geography.

Proximities seem to be what people look for.  It’s good for people who know Wisconsin enough for me to say, “South of LaCrosse” or “Near the border of Iowa & Minnesota”.  That can be pretty confusing for those who don’t know it though.  For instance, it’s not out of the question for someone to ask “Is that anywhere near Chicago?”  which I usually answer that with, “Yeah, sort of like how LAX is just down the street from Las Vegas.”  Then I get asked about the town that has the sports team, and I am not sure if they mean Green Bay or Milwaukee – then I realize they think it’s both (or Chicago again).

More often than not, I try to use the ‘straight-line’ description.  I’ll say, “You know how Milwaukee & Madison are in a straight line east to west?  Well take that line and go all the way to the river, and that’s where I grew up.”

What is interesting to me is that there are people confused about the phrase “the river”.  The problem is that I describe “the river” like there is only one river.  Then I have to explain, I am talking about the Mississippi River, the largest river in North America, and one of the largest in the world – regardless of how you would measure such a thing.  Granted, I this is partly on me, I have to embrace the fact there are other rivers, but I know there are other rivers, but none are like “the river”.

Most people who haven’t seen the Mississippi up along the Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Upper Illinois boarders probably picture something like out of Mark Twain-ish stories near St Louis.  Slow-moving, meandering, muddy river that is fairly wide.  Others might think of the Mississippi in New Orleans, narrow, deep, and heading out to sea.  While the muddy and slow part is my river, the rest isn’t as much.

Where I grew up, the Mississippi is very wide and doesn’t meander as much as it took different paths to get where it was going.  The Northern Midwest was carved by ice ages, so rivers filled those gaps the best they could.  This means the Mississippi stays the course between ridgelines rising a few hundred feet over the valley floor.  Still, it breaks into channels or sloughs.  Small pockets of water or small river pathways are broken by low lying islands and strips of sand, swampy and smelly from constant debris hanging up on the shores.  The largest channel is maybe three-quarters of a mile wide, but to get from coast-to-coast is well over two miles.

I grew up on that river, in the many ways I can say that statement.  We lived two blocks from the closest waterway, a tiny passage that was a stone’s throw across – and we spent time as kids tossing those stones across it.  While I wasn’t much of a fisherman, it’s not like I didn’t try.  I remember a phase in high school, were to just get some time to myself I would throw a bucket, a rod, and some worms onto my moped and drop a line in for an hour.  Wikipedia shows the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers just down the way from us, and I can remember long nights hanging out under a train trestle just talking.  My first job was in a bait shop.  My dad’s summer business rented boats.  There are people who are rivermen, who are like seamen but on the river – that wasn’t me; I stuck to the shore.  Yet I still grew up on the river.

Maybe I say all this hoping for forgiveness from those people who can’t visualize what it’s like to be so near such a great body of water.  I remember meeting someone when I was in my twenties who grew up with the Manhattan Skyline out their bedroom window, and I thought that was the coolest … but I told him I grew up on the Mississippi, and he thought that was the coolest too.    Maybe that’s what I am expecting, and what I am getting is something else.

I guess that’s alright.  I mean, at least they have heard of Chicago.


Throwing Up the Red Flag


In California, we don’t get Hurricanes.  We don’t get Supercell Thunderstorms, Nor’easters, or Polar Vortexes.  The Pineapple Express stays to the north, the Chinooks are inland, and El Nino is something that the rest of the country deals with.  Yeah, we get Earthquakes, but that just ‘happens’.  When it comes to actual weather, the only real threat that comes along happens this time of year.

Southern California is now in what is called a “Red Flag Warning”.  Essentially, this means that the threat is high for dangerous brush fires, but of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Red Flag Warnings are actually weather-related alerts put out by the National Weather Service (the same people who put out your other storm warnings).  That alone should tell you that this is a weather-related condition.  It starts with actually the opposite of what you think – wet weather.  In the spring and early summer, rains and marine coastal moisture allow fast-growing plants to prosper.  The faster a plant grows, however, the faster it dries out.  When you enter a period of drought, whether over years like California saw the first part of the 2010s or short-term like we have seen since August of this year, all that vegetation lays like kindling awaiting the right conditions.

This is where the ‘Red Flag Warning’ conditions come into play.  Today and tomorrow, there is an expected major pressure change that will push air from the desert to the sea.  This is so typically that it has a fairly popular name:  Santa Ana Winds.  These winds stay low, going through valleys and canyons, which makes them move quicker – usually with gusts between 40 to 70 mph.  Also,  because they came from the desert they are hot and dry.

So – We have dry vegetation that can easily burn.  We have hot dry air blowing at fast rates.  Essentially, all you need is an ignition source, and you have a swift-moving, dangerous fire.

That’s why we get the warning.  Good reason right?

Then of course … this is California, so we have to completely lose our “collective stuff” over something like this.  We are on Day Four of ‘Red Flag Warning” countdown.  It’s like Red Flag Armageddon is on us.  A Red Flag Warning that will last for a little over 36 hours mind you (much of it has started with misty, moist morning air).  Schools are closing in ‘high-risk areas’.  Even the local power company has warned of possible power outages where power will be cut rather than threaten a spark to light a fire.  As someone who works in a field where Risk Mitigation is a top priority, I am all for this discussion — but you first need to identify where the risk is.

I’m telling you, La Crescenta where I live is not where the risk is.

Some key things about wildfires in California are, as dangerous and destructive as they are, they typically don’t occur where there are people.  Much like the myth about tornadoes in Kansas, most fires occur or burn across areas vegetation can grow without human interaction.  Sometimes there are homes or ranches in the way, but not communities of hundreds of thousands of people.

Second, these burns are a necessary order of life.  Plants grow, plants die, plants dry out.  For new plants to grow, the old ones need to go away.  Fires are how this happened since fire was first created.

More than anything, firefighters, smoke jumpers, fire crews — they are incredibly strategic and incredibly strong at what they do.  I mean, we all know they are brave and noble, but they know what they are doing.  Many times when a brush fire is going, they may come back and say the fire is XX contained (like 30% or 50%).  What they really mean is they are blocking the fire from doing what they don’t want to do and letting it burn what they will let it do.  Fires are usually the most dangerous when they are first lit because they are the most unpredictable.  Yet once the lines start to get cut, the tankers start laying down retardant, and troops arrive … they got this.  They got this good!

More than anything, the threat of fire, especially to those of us in the concrete jungle, is incredibly low.  A couple of years ago, I was here for the La Tuna Fire, one of the biggest in Los Angeles County that burned over the Verdugo mountains.  This was a fire that burned on a mountain stuck right in the middle of a massive population and burned 7200 acres of land.  It lit up and “threatened” most of the San Fernando Valley – which includes 1,770,000 people.  The fire was widespread, very consuming, and remained a ‘low containment’ for nearly a week.  In the end, 5 homes were destroyed and about 1000 people had to be evacuated.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s sad for those homeowners and those evacuees, but this ‘mostly uncontained fire’ only was an actual threat to 0.06% of that area.  I was in an area that we were recommended to watch for updates, but still a couple blocks from a ‘voluntary evacuation’; and while I could see smoke for days, only saw a single glimpse of a fire once.

So, maybe it is bravado, but I am looking forward to this “Red Flag Warning” as a nothing experience.  The real Red Flag Warning, LA should have been ready for was the Dodgers going down to the Nationals last night, but that’s a wound too fresh to push at.  Instead, I’ll just say I’m expecting the smell of a campfire, the dry wheezing of smoke in my lungs, and an occasional need to watch the news.

Flying the Big Bird


I posted last week about my short trip to Germany, which while enjoyable was … well … short.  While there was some interest in the Oktoberfest I stopped by in Stuttgart, there seemed to be even more interest when I mentioned I was going to be on an A380 for my return flight to the states.  Still battling jet lag, I thought why not spout out about that experience.

The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest commercial airliner.  By largest, I mean, there isn’t even a competition for first place.  The standard A380 carries 525 passengers.  The next closest is the Boeing 747-8, which while impressive at 416 passengers is still over 100 people behind.  A380s can be configured for a maximum passenger number of 853 which if you want to see something crazy, google A380 evacuation test and watch them try to get that kind of number out in less than a minute.  The A380 was so big it left airports in a mad rush to handle such a plane.  Airbus had to test the crushing weight of the wheels so that airports could ensure runway lights wouldn’t get destroyed by them.  Wings were so wide they had to take into consideration blowing up dirt and wrecking other planes.  Airports had to have tractors big enough to push and pull these beasts around if they had to.

Then there’s the 2nd floor.  Oh yeah, did I mention the 2nd floor?  It has the 2nd floor.  Not like the short one at the front of a 747, an Airbus A380 has an entire 2nd floor.  That’s the real standout of this aircraft, it can manage all these people because it has the floor space to handle them.  There are many who love the A380 just for this reason, because with all that space on the plane, Airbus created extravagant First Class accommodations.  Planes this large are intended for long hauls – 8 to 12-hour flights.  I’ve known people who have had rooms on an A380, not isolated seats, but actual rooms with beds and showers.  I’ve seen pictures of the bars they have on these planes, like, chat up the crew bars.

Of course, I didn’t see that … I flew coach.  I always fly coach, when there’s something cool at least.

Last week was my first ever flight on an A380, and it just leaves one commercial airline (the aforementioned Boeing 747) that I haven’t been on. My first reaction when seeing the plane was not positive.  Eleven years in aircraft manufacturing, decades of flying, and I love the look of a sexy aircraft – the A380 is not sexy.  The flight deck (where the pilots sit) is pushed out from the lower level, and the rest of the plane swoops up then back.  It looks like a guy who got hit in the forehead or is losing his hair.  If that plane played an instrument, it would be a banjo.

When choosing my seat, I targeted a 2nd-floor seat, just to say I was on the 2nd floor.  After they scan your boarding pass, you’re sent down one of three tunnels – two on the lower level (likely one is for First Class only because of all the gold-covered red carpet and champaign popping), and one climbing up to the second.  Up there, it didn’t seem any different than any other plane … except, weird-ish. My seat was second to last row and number 82L, so keep in mind there were 82 combined rows on this plane, probably.  Back there, rows were eight across – two by each window, four in the middle.  The fuselage was bending different than the rest of the plane, so my overhead space was smaller than a regional jet.  The seating in the economy isn’t much different than any other Airbus, the entertainment system as ‘Meh’ as I normally see on those flights as well.  The window seat did give me a little bit of a bonus.  Again, because of the weird bend of the fuselage, there were stow bins between me and the wall – wide enough for blankets, pillows, or whatever; deep as well.  It became a good place just to keep things that a seat back doesn’t.  The windows were awkward, as there was about a foot distance from the inside glass to the outside – so even though they were slightly larger than a normal plane, they were like looking through a tunnel.

Otherwise, flying the big bird felt no different than any larger transatlantic capable plane.  The seats were comfortable-ish, the bathrooms were just big enough to feel too small, and you just have to hope someone doesn’t recline during the meal service.  I’ve flown on worse overseas planes (looking at you 767, looking at you), but the smash forehead beast that is the A380 works in it’s own ways.


Guten Tag aus Deutschland


Today is German Unification Day.  This is the anniversary of the day when East & West Germany reunited bringing in the modern German era.

Most of you were probably unaware that German Unification Day was today, because, well, most of you aren’t German.  It goes without saying – most of you aren’t aware of ANZAC Day or Guy Fucks Day or Nemzeti ünnep.  I’m not so educated on these either, they play football and eat cookies in Australia for ANZAC Day, Guy Fucks Day is my birthday, and that last one I just googled ‘national holidays in Hungary’.

I know German Unification Day is today because everywhere I look banks are closed, shops are closed, and people are sleeping in.

Because I’m in Germany.


Yeah, the blog has been quiet, shouldn’t have been but was.  There have been issues, and that means blogs go quiet.  I did try, in fact, there is a mystery post I was pretty happy with on Monday about the panic I get from flying overseas.  I told the story of my first trip, about how I almost starved myself out of fear of counting English money wrong, and how a stuffed dog named Elvis got me by.  That bridge is passed, so sucks to be you to have never seen it.

I’m in Germany for work.  Specifically the area around Stuttgart in the southwest.  My plane landed Tuesday night, my work was finished up by early Wednesday afternoon, today is my day to get caught up on sleep, then tomorrow I fly home.  I’ll have some time to enjoy Stuttgart, which may mean visiting the Wessen (or Oktoberfest) but because it is a public holiday it may be sold out.

For those of you new-ish to the blog, I used to travel overseas a fair bit – like about 2 to 3 times a year.  It has been three years since I have made such a trip, and six years since I have been to Germany.  Ironically, while I am banging away at trying to remember what it’s like to be overseas, I am tracking issues back at work that may require me to go again – not just overseas but back to Germany, and not just back to Germany but to the same exact place I was at yesterday.


Issues do come up.

MTU – The Return


It’s been a week, but a pretty cool thing happened not to long ago.  I spent a day in Houghton, Michigan at Michigan Technological University, acting as a representative of JPL’s Quality Assurance program.  The description may sound neat, but let me add to the ‘neat’ part.

Michigan Tech (or MTU) is my alma mater.  I graduated from there with a BS in Materials Engineering back in 1995. Since that time MTU has developed an Aerospace Enterprise program, where undergraduate students forego their senior project work to join a team focused on designing, building, and launching satellites.  Since meeting with members of the team last fall, they’ve been interested in having someone talk to the challenges of quality assurance in spaceflight … and I was interested in that too.  The day was spent meeting the Enterprise team, talking directly with professors on what they are working on, then giving two seminars — one to Graduates who have to attend for a class (yet didn’t fall asleep on me, so that’s a win) and Undergrads who were a little more fun.

So finally — we made that happen.

MTU is located in a pretty remote location of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so remote that this was the first time I have been able to visit since I graduated.  I mean, I’ve had an interest to, but it’s a 6 to 8-hour drive from major airports.  Even when I tried to visit this spring, I got stuck in Chicago (see My Inconvenience).  I had to take an hour-and-a-half flight out of Chicago to Marquette, then drive two hours to Houghton — and that flight only runs once a day.  That’s all that you can accept for excuses for my absence.

I mean, it’s been 24 years since I have been to Houghton; and as much of a hurry I was to leave back then, I was glad to be back.

This trip seemed like career or personal validation to a certain extent but didn’t necessarily turn out that way.    I mean, you might picture some movie where a once something something student comes back to reconnect with their old professor … that didn’t happen and probably doesn’t anywhere.  The professors I connected when I was a student either left, retired, or probably didn’t have anything to do with what I do now.  Of those professors I sat down to talk to, only one was actually at MTU when I was there, and in a completely different major.  Still, they had a lot of great things to talk about.

Like studies going into mining water from rocks on Mars, opening the door to possible habitats.  Or developing energy sources from tidal conditions.  Or using small satellites to study hurricane data from above.  The real star is MTU’s Aerospace Enterprise program, a shining star in the growing world of university cubesat development.

My real curiosity came from what it would be like to visit a place that I hadn’t seen in so long.  I really wanted to know what had changed … and the answer was, not much.

The campus only had a few differences.  The fine arts theatre and environmental buildings that were just breaking ground when I left are now classified as ‘been around forever’.  Some of this is going to sound foreign to those of you who didn’t go there … but you’ll get the point.  The controversial covered bridge between Fisher Hall and the Library (because that wind tunnel that froze your face off outside was a right of passage back in my day, kids these days with their inside conditions).  The old ‘incline pine’ fell finally and now is replaced with the symbolic Husky … complete with its symbolic anatomically correct parts.  Windows are what stood out to me, big ones on the Library, and just more on old Wadsworth Hall.  Plus more living quarters and apartments.  Plus a clocktower that  … let’s face it … could be bigger.  Plus some great work areas in the M&M building.

I gave my graduate seminar in the EERC 103, a room I took only one class in for only a few weeks.  That class was Fundamentals of Electronics (EE301), a class I talk a lot about now because it was the only subject that seemed so difficult to me that I couldn’t for the life of me get a correct answer on any homework or test … and I swear it was simple math.  If my degree didn’t completely overhaul and dropped EE301 as mandatory, I likely wouldn’t graduate.  Instead, a guy who barely graduated was giving a Graduate Seminar.

Houghton, like the school, hadn’t changed much.  I stayed at one of the two hotels in town (the one with a restaurant).  Half the bars are the same, including The Library … the bar where I turned 21; like literally, at midnight the bartender served me my first legal drink.  There’s a microbrew where a cheap drink place is at; but other old school bars like the Downtowner, Dog House, and Ambassador seem as unchanged as the alumni told us as unchanged when we were still around.

Not just that, it was cold.  Los Angeles was topping out at triple digits when I was in Houghton, but up there it wasn’t going to break into the 60s.  A little dew on the grass, a little bit of a nip in the air, and even a little orange on the trees.  Winters in Houghton were notorious for their length, and it was just nice to remember that early September winters are possible.

Honestly, I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to set something like this up again.  It was hard to make happen, and I got what I needed as much as they go what they needed.  Still, going back to MTU and Houghton was refreshing, and gave me the desire to do it again … at least not wait another 24 years to go.

It’s just going to take some work.