A Pupdate Long Time Coming

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As I was milling about the house last night and thinking about this little old blog, it hit me that I hadn’t given a decent Pupdate in a long long time.  At one point, the most popular thing about the Bear Feed was posts about my dog, because let’s face it – he’s hella more interesting than I am.

For those of you new-ish to the Blog (I’m talking to you, Dean, just to see if you are paying attention).  I am talking about Auggie, also known as Auggie the Doggie, AugDog,  Pooper, Pooper Dooper, Farty McFartFart, Dummy, Buddy, and legally known as AKA Fullthrottle’s Gold Rush King.  You may get a few other names I use for him as we go along, but you get the point.  Auggie is a purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier, important to know because that officially classifies him as an ‘aggressive breed’ in California (more on that later).   He came into my life a little over seven years ago just weaned from his momma and has been pooping up my life ever since.

For the most part, there isn’t much to update about Auggie, he’s just chill.  Little Dude abides.  When I work, he has his routine.  We get up, he does his business, he sleeps all day, I get home, he does his business, I give some belly scratches, and then he sleeps on my bed in the places least comfortable for me.  He’s always been a fan of looking out the window, so I have pushed a recliner into one corner allowing him to get up the three feet to see out the big windows.  Occasionally, he needs to protect me from the evil delivery people or evil squirrels or evil dogs that barked at him first; but otherwise, normal days are normal.  When I am around the house, it can be more of a pain – because SleepyPuppy needs to follow me everywhere and that means he can’t get in his 20 hours of sleep a day.  Plus there is the constant need to tell me to let him go outside even though he just went out 20 minutes ago.

Auggers is generally healthy too.  This year marks the first year he is (in dog years) older than me.  He had a shoulder issue a couple years back, a bone chip that the vet suggested was degenerative and something likely we need to watch for as he goes along.  Oddly enough, the best thing to help this is for him to be a sports fan.   Because Augolicious loves the Green Bay Packers, he wears their jersey all the time (or at least, I put him in the jersey).  This actually helps apply pressure to joints that could degenerate.  Occasionally, I will see a limp or a hitch in his step suggesting he’s feeling pain, but he’ll try to hide it as long as he can.  Other than that and a weird yeasty thing in his ear that was itchy (and he would tend to miss and hit his eye leading to a couple days in the cone of shame), he’s doing pretty good.

Where people do worry is the time I have been spending away from him.  I’m not heartless, I worry about that too … a lot.  That being said, it’s a little bit par for the course.  For the most part of his life, I used PetSmart’s PetHotel to board him.  I started using them in Alaska out of sheer convenience.  They were the closest boarding facility to my house, literally a half-mile away.  We did all our pet shopping and we practiced a ton of our dog training in those aisles.  They loved him there at that South Anchorage branch, too – and I am not just saying that they would send an announcement over the loudspeakers when Auggie came in to be boarded so they could all greet him.  After we left Alaska, it just became a safe choice.  As a national brand, I can rely on each location to have his vet information, background, and contact information without much concern.  Plus I knew their rules.  Because Auggie is an “aggressive breed” (I can’t “quotation mark” that phrase enough, mind you), PetSmart has restrictions – the biggest is he can’t play with other dogs.  So, he just has to play one-on-one with a human (kind of a lose-win if you ask me).  When I lived in Boston, I didn’t have a PetSmart handy, but I drove around with him everywhere … and I mean EVERYWHERE … so when I did board him it was at a local pet hospital where they still loved him (one girl would always do the “Auggie Butt Dance” to mimic the way he gets fired up when seeing people he likes but still has to walk).

Thing is, it’s not the place I keep him.  It’s the amount of time I keep him there.  Auggie spent nearly half his time in boarding in November and December.  In one of my previous posts, I said goodbye to a dear friend.  I went to the friend’s funeral, but the one thing that almost kept me from going was that I had to put Auggie back into the PetSmart after less than 24 hours being out, and that’s after week after week after week.  I was so worried about it, I took a minute to talk to one of the PetSmart people if I was causing any red flags.  I had been in there enough that while I felt I could trust him to be honest with me.  What he said has stuck with me:

“It’s not the amount of time people leave their pets here.  It’s the people themselves.  We know Auggie enough that we know you enough.  And we’re not worried about you.”

So, that’s the news of Fuzzball.  Feel pupdated now.

Let’s Have a Talk About the Jedi

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Alright.  I gave you space.  I gave you time.  I gave you every chance in the world to get yourself up to speed.  I’m ready to risk the heartbreak, the arguments, and most of all the spoilers.

It’s time we discuss Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker – also known as Episode IX (or 9).

I am guessing 99% of you know what film I am talking about, but if you crawled out from under a rock or was marooned on a deserted island for the half-century, let me just give you the scope.  I am, of course, talking about the epic space opera Star Wars.  Starting with eponyms 1977 film, moving making and special effects were radically changed on the back of a storyline and characters that were so easy to love that it was easy for any five-year-old to follow it for the rest of their life.  As the “Episode” suggests, this was the 9th and final in the original ‘trilogy of trilogies’.  There is a plan to make more movies, and the scope of the Star Wars universe is handled in different media, most publicly these days in the Disney+ show “The Mandalorian”, less publically by the now canon 1978 holiday special, but from the scope of the original plan by the show’s developer George Lucas, this was the last of it.

So how did as a Star Wars loving public handle it?  Well, like we handled most Start Wars things for most of the life of the Star Wars Saga … with a lot of bellyaching.

For the record, I loved Rise of Skywalker, but let me get back to it.

The second film released Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) is commonly considered the best of all nine films.  Heck, Empire is sometimes placed on a level with the greatest films of all time.  Keeping that in mind, seven films followed, none which matched the greatness of Empire.  The problem I have is that it can be an unfair comparison.   Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI) was very good, but was hated by some in the nerd community because of Ewoks – little furry creatures that save the day late in the movie.  Are Ewoks as cool as droids?  No, but that’s no reason to spread hate on a film.

Now, for you Star Wars fans, this isn’t leading me to start to defend Jar Jar Binks — I think we all know where is going to go.   After nearly sixteen years waiting for a new Star Wars movie, the initial crawl told us we would be reward with  – a trade dispute.  The trilogy of episodes I, II, & III wasn’t good, to say the least, but they aren’t without their positives.  Those films failed due to poor dialogue and stale performances through all three movies.  In hindsight, however, much of the mythos, story, and breadth of the Star Wars universe was established in between the whining and establishing the high ground.  The biggest was in The Phantom Menace (Episode I) when … well … let me get back to that point.

After another twenty years, we were finally rewarded with sequels.  I was incredibly excited about this because regardless of what you thought of the prequel trilogy, it was a story we already knew.  I had literally gone nearly 40 years without learning something new about the force, the galaxy, any of that.  The Force Awakens (Episode VII) was a reward.  Some liked it, I loved it.

Where the controversy arose came in the next installment The Last Jedi (Episode VIII) released a couple years ago.  The Star Wars production team made a change in the writer, director, and everything – and many feel this was a problem.  So, I stand by my opinion that I liked the film, though I like it less now than when it first came out.  Again, it was new, it was the world I liked.  It was better than the original trilogy because the performances were energetic, heartfelt, and rich with depth.  It just went in some odd directions.  Rotten Tomatoes, a  site that tracks film reviews to see how people feel about a film, pointed out that film reviewers loved The Last Jedi, but the fans didn’t.  I kept saying “if you don’t like this film, then you don’t deserve nice things”.

This brought us The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX).  Released in December, I sat with my 3D goggles on hours after it’s release soaking in the IMAX screen for one last go at it.  In short, I loved it.  There were a fair bit of things they did for fan service, but I am a fan and I liked to be serviced.  This film made me laugh out loud, it made me cry real tears, and it made me think about life itself – and put simply, that makes for a very full set of emotions.  I wouldn’t say it stuck the landing the same way Avengers: Endgame did earlier this year, but it was still incredible.  The thing is, the original trilogy was good because actors (even unknown actors) were given the freedom to throw themselves into loveable characters.  One of my favorite moments in all nine movies was the “Light Speed Skipping vs. Dropping a Tree on BB-8” banter near the start of this film – timing, comedic, and rich against sounds dubbed in later was gold.

Then, of course, I started hearing the bellyache.  There was anger over the surprise return of the villain.  There were a lot of beefs about the surprise powers showing up throughout the film.  There were complaints about the ending and open questions.  But most of all, I have heard a lot of people making a stink about the “Diad”.

Put simply, the last three episodes centered on two opponents.  One a Jedi, one a sith (or a bad guy like Darth Vader).  These films focused a lot on how the two seemed to be drawing together but were challenged by their commitment to their side of the force.  In this last film, they gave that a name, calling it a diad.  Some pointed to it and tried to say it was nothing but a forced love interest.  I pointed to it that the whole nine films was leading to that final conclusion.

From nearly the first words spoken about the force, they said it was what creates balance in the known universe.  The balance was the keyword.  During most of these series, the dark side controlled things, which sent the force out of balance.  However, Episode I starts with the Jedi in full control of the force without a single Sith lord known.  They even suggested it was that way for generations.  My argument was, that it was out of balance as well.  The whole of the story followed the rise of dark, the overzealous need to control it, then it’s fall; however, The Force awakened to search for balance and it used the diad to find it.

Granted, tons of questions arose from that, but the bellyaching needs to end.  We were given a massive treat in what this set of movies became.  We were lucky to be given these films, and I feel blessed to have seen them all in the theatre when they were first released.  Star Wars captured my imagination long ago in a small town far far away, and you won’t catch me bellyaching about that.

Xmas Letter 2019

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Every year I send out a Christmas Letter to Friends and Family, and I’ve made it a habit of sharing it in the blog for the last few years.  So here it is.

A disclaimer — those of you who normally get it in the mail, they only hit the post office yesterday, so if you want to wait you can wait.

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Happy Belated Holidays!!!

Seriously, I couldn’t have written this later.  I am literally writing this on Christmas Eve morning, and it’s going to be a battle to get these little guys to a mailbox in time to spend a lonely Christmas Day in a sorting bin.  Still, it’s here in your hot little hands ready for your read.

Here it is … Your annual Mitch & Auggie Nelson Christmas Letter.

So what’s been going on?  Well, the usual ‘a lot’ and ‘not much.’

For starters, I had a health scare.  Months of ignoring signs that my blood pressure was getting out of control, I went into the ER and stayed at the Hospital for a few days to treat it.  While I didn’t have a heart attack, I was knocking at the door.  While good medication and a doctor helps, I still have some work to do on the old ‘making lifestyle changes,’ but I am getting there.  Truth be told, I was really lucky to have it all happen while visiting my dear friends Chadd and Heather Creed.  Through their support, love, and ridiculously high generocity, I came out the better.

With that little scare, I got to see my parents and brother, who turned it into a summer California Vacation.  It was one of three times I got to spend with them all.  I returned home for my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage like always; however, I returned again in December on more somber terms.  We said goodbye to an old friend from my high school days John Mundt, who helped form a lot of my creativity and passions by just being his own special, weird self.

I continue to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab, a NASA Center based in Pasadena, CA, in Procurement Quality Assurance.  Now here for three years, I’ve passed into that territory where I seem to plan to be here for a bit.  One area that I have found myself working with is the interactions between universities and NASA centers, including the challenges faced with quality assurance expectations at each.  It’s getting to the point that in 2020, I am slated to give presetnations on the subject to the community.  To support that, I’ve visited a few universities and interviewed some of the key people working at those organizations.

One place, and a highlight of my year, was to meet with the Aerospace Enterprise team at Michigan Technological University.  This trip stands out because it’s my alma mater.  I hadn’t visited MTU since I graduated back in 1995.  Things have changed since then, but not too much either.  Seeing all the old buildings, the old streets, the old school was a rush of nostalga, but it was also incredible to talk to people with the experience of twenty years behind me as well.

Another experience I won’t soon forget happened in March.  While attending a meeting in Cape Canavaral, collegues were able to get us access to the Vertical Assembly Facility (VAF).  When you visit the Kennedy Center (essentially where they launch rockets to the moon), the VAF stands out at the place where they stack up the rockets for launch.  This is the massive building you see in nearly every photo of the place.  I got to go inside, I got to get freaked out with vertigo at the higher levels.  I got to see where Apollo, the Space Shuttles, and eventually the Orion missions were built up.  This trip also took us to where the Space Shuttle Columbia debris is stored.  They keep it to help build lessons learned for future missions and have built up protective means ot maintain the debris.  I don’t think I will ever forget when the manger of this department walked up to a spot on a wing’s leading edge and pointed to an area where they were missing material.  He said, “it was here that insulation hit, that’s what eventually brought it down.”  It was history he pointed at.

Work kept me traveling.  Colorado seemed a common destination, but I made trips to Dallas, Austin, Iowa City, Long Island, and Phoenix.

I spent a suprising amount of time in Germany for work.  I spent nearly a week there in October for essentially a half day of business, then returned in December for over a week.  If you know your calendars, that means I was there first for Oktoberfest – a bucket item list long standing in my mind – albeit the Oktoberfest in Stuttgart (considered to be second only to Munich, but still a distant second).  Though by being there in December, I experienced the Winter Markets, and fell in love with the warmth and happiness of such things – and started arguments by saying I prefer the Winter Market to the Oktoberfest.

My hobbies continue to keep me busy.  I continue to remain active in the marching arts activity as an adjucator.  I had a long marching band judging season, with six shows spread out from mid-September to mid-November.  I started juding indoor winter color guard, which is a significant shift for me and I continue to train to be blessed as a real life judge.

I continue to work on writing as well, which is a beast in itself.  I belong to critique groups to help develop those skills but can’t say I am getting any better.  As a joke, someone shared with me: “Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Encourage a child to write a book, and they will face a lifetime of editing, self-hatred, and depression.”  Let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to think you are a good writer than letting others tell you what they think.  Regardless, if you haven’t, I’d encourage you to follow my blog I use to keep the world up to date with my idiocity:
bearfeed.net
Which is also posted on my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts.

Other than that, my world spins on.  2020 should get interesting, as all weird number years seem to do.  JPL is launching our next big rover in the summer, and I have my fingers crossed to sneak away to watch that.  I return to Germany again in January.  Plus, it’s a new year, and new years always bring hope.  So here’s to the hope to you and yours.

 

From Auggie & Mitch

Merry Christmas
Happy New Year

Statute of Limitations

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I am slipping in a quick post from an airport, just to give closure to a long week.  In my last post, I paid tribute to the passing of a friend I knew when I was in high school, John Mundt, Esq.  John passed last week unexpectedly.  In part due to the unexpected nature, I made the decision to attend the services, which were held yesterday.

For what it’s worth, logistically this wasn’t easy.  I learned of John’s passing late because I was in Germany.  While I was due to come home from Germany shortly, I was returning to Los Angeles, not Wisconsin where the funeral would be; so I needed to make my plans while still overseas.  Short notice meant far from ideal travel plans (mostly including the statement ‘arriving at 1AM).  Plus, Auggie the Doggie would have no more than 18 hours between pick-up and drop-off at the kennel, after only a few days out from being in for a long period of time.  Plus it was cold in Wisconsin.  Plus the gas station in Stoddard I usually stop at for cheese curds was out.

With all the complaints out of the way, let me say I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.  Sometimes going to a funeral is to be there for the family, and don’t get me wrong, I was there to do that.  I am heartbroken for his beloved wife and his surviving sister.  This time, it was as much to remember him and remember the effect he had on us in his small lucky group of uncool nerds.

Many of our circle couldn’t make it, which makes sense with the short notice, the time of year, and just how hard it is to get to where we grew up.  But those of us who did laughed, cried, and loved.

I’ll hold off on the tributes, I think I said enough from my crazy UFO story from last week, but I will tell you this.

When you tell stories of crazy things kids do in high school, it has to come with a statute of limitations.  We were generally good kids.  We didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t commit any crimes (of any great magnitude that is).  But we did do some things that in hindsight were dangerous, crazy, and above all else … stupid.  Thing is, when you are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen doing all that, you’d never tell your parents about it.  So telling them now in front of them … you got to ask for forgiveness.

I sit in this airport tired.  I talked so much, told so many stories, laughed soo hard, that I need to rest.  That’s what tomorrow is for.

Tomorrow I live on.  I live on without John, but live on regardless … and in his spirit I will live on loving what life has to give me.

Which starts with a 9am showing of Star Wars.

Chasing UFOs from Treehouses

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.