Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Blog Hiatus

My first blog entry was January 15, 2010, This was early in my retirement. Since that time I’ve written 67 blog entries. I knew that one of the activities I wanted to pursue was writing. I floundered around for several months, but couldn’t  settle on a writing project. The blog idea came in a flash. The blog would allow me to explore a variety of subjects and have a readership, which would force me to write better. I’ve tried to make each blog entry into a somewhat polished piece of writing. I committed myself to writing the blog for one year. At the end of the year I would re-evaluate what I wanted to pursue for the next year.

The year is up and I’ve again been having trouble deciding what to work on. In the past year, I have established a discipline that gets the writing job done. Now it’s just a matter of deciding what to focus on. I wrote a novel in the ‘80s that is autobiographical. Even though I have re-written it several times, I’m still not happy with the final product. I’ve been working on several of the chapters lately and to my surprise, I’m getting into it. I thought I would be able to work on the novel and still do the blog, but that’s not happening for me. I am immersed in the novel and don’t want to think about other writing projects. So for now, I am taking a break from the blog. I’m not sure when I’ll return.

I don’t know what happens to abandoned blogs. I assume  they continue to float around in cyberspace. If you have been a regular reader, thank you. If you want to contact me, my email address is

As Texas Bruce used to say: Hasta la vista vaqueros,  I’ll be seeing you wranglers.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pictures of Ben

Friday was our son Ben's 31st birthday. It will be 3 years this May since he died. Katie and I drove up to Prescott to scatter a small amount of his ashes we saved for Arizona. We had several places in mind to scatter the ashes. but couldn't decide. Then it became clear, for the place was right before our eyes. On Katie's dresser is a picture of Ben standing looking out over a serene meadow and lake with trees. We found this picture in his drug and alcohol treatment workbook after he died. It was an assignment: show a place that represented peace for him.

It took us a while to figure out where the picture was taken. It was in Prescott, Az. overlooking the golf course by the condo we used to own. The exact spot where I practiced Tai Chi during the year we lived there. I had taken the picture. Ben was visiting from Washington and he and I rode out to the condo on my motorcycle. We had recently bought it, but hadn't movBen's peace picture 001ed in yet. I wanted him to see it before he went home.
I like to think pictures capture a hint of the essence of a person. There is one picture of Ben that was never taken, but is imprinted deep in my brain. It was the last time I saw him. Katie and I were in Seattle. Ben was working at Murphy's Pub and Grill as a cook. He was doing well and looking really good. We went over to Murphy's to eat lunch. He wanted us to experience where he worked and cook our lunch before we headed for home. It was simple bar and grill fare. I ordered a fish sandwich and Katie ordered a dinner salad. Ben served it to us himself. It was carefully prepared and beautifully presented. Katie and I agreed it was a delicious meal and I felt proud of him for being such a steady and dedicated worker. Throughout the lunch he came out from the kitchen to sit and visit with us for a few minutes. After the meal he walked us outside and stood on the corner with us as we waited for the traffic signal to change. It was May, but Seattle was still damp and cold. We allowed the crosswalk sign to change several times before saying goodbye. It felt good to linger together there for a while. Finally, anxious to get home, I started to cross the street when the light changed again. I glanced back at him standing there in his cook’s apron by his mom who was reluctant to leave. I waved goodbye and smiled. He waved and smiled back. That is the picture seared in my brain.
One of the hardest things we've ever had to do in life was clean out his apartment after his death. We had to go through everything and make a decision about each thing’s disposition. Typical of Ben's life, spontaneously a whole bunch of his friends showed up to help. We urged them to take many of his things and some of it was put into boxes with the decision process put off until later. Being surrounded by his young friends felt right. We all hugged and cried in Ben's place, surrounded by his stuff.
He had only two photos on display in his room. Both were pictures of his paternal grandparents. He was extremely close to my mom who died in 1993. I don't think he ever really got over her death. He knew my dad for just the first years of his life, but over time he heard numerous stories about him. Carefully framed and in the most prominent place of the apartment, on top of his television, was a picture from when he was about 15 months old. He is holding hands with his grandparents on the beach. He is happy and safe and the three of them are walking away.
Happy Birthday Ben, we miss you terribly. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Two Related Stories

I'm currently teaching a reflective writing class and I wrote these two stories to illustrate how current experiences and the way we react to them are intimately related to past experiences. I didn't know these two incidences were related, however, until I wrote them.
I was recently invited to a motorcycle club Christmas party by my friend, Ron. It's a BMW club and most of the members ride BMWs even though Ron rides a Yamaha touring bike and I ride a Honda cruiser. I've never belonged to a riding club and have only ridden with a group one time previously. I prefer to ride alone or with a friend.
The club party was held in Sierra Vista, and there were four of us who rode down there together from Green Valley. I didn't have a chance to talk much with the two other men, but after the party was over and as we were congregating around our bikes getting ready for the return trip, I noticed one of them had a Vietnam veteran sticker on his windshield. Years ago I decided that if I identify another Vietnam veteran and if it seems appropriate to do so, I will identify myself as a veteran and say a few words to them, sort of a welcome home brother thing. So I went up to the guy and told him I noticed that he too was a Vietnam vet. I asked him where he served in Vietnam. He responded, “I was all over the country” and then silence. I told him I was in the Chu Lai area in I Corps and that I was in Army Intelligence. Silence. “What was your MOS(job)?” I asked. He said he was in communications and added “Whenever any Intelligence guys came out to the field where we were, they didn't know what the hell they were doing and had to be shown all the basics, like how to set up camp...” and I forget what else he said. I quickly responded that we were never trained in many of the combat activities and that when I went out with the infantry, I relied heavily on their direction and guidance. So I guess I was agreeing with him, which later felt like I was admitting, I didn't know shit about staying alive in the field and was a general pain in the ass to the others. I definitely don't feel that way, but that was the end of our Welcome home brother conversation.
On the ride back home I couldn't get this conversation out of my mind. The emotion was creating a big pressure in my chest. It was a combination of hurt and anger. I kept glancing at the guy who was riding up ahead and having thoughts like, why did you say that to me? And I don't need to go to any more of these stupid motorcycle clubs. And He doesn't have any idea what I did in Vietnam, where does he get off putting down Army Intelligence? And some thoughts that were more judgmental and hostile and probably not appropriate for my blog. When my friend and I peeled off to go home, I made sure not to wave goodbye to the guy. As if he cared.
I've written about this phenomenon before. I could write numerous other stories that are almost identical. This is probably the main reason I don't join veterans' clubs. There's usually somebody who will say something to me and trigger this powerful, unpleasant emotion. When I shared the experience with Katie, she asked me why I didn't come back with something in my defense or keep it light and tease the guy a little.
Thinking about her question, I remembered an earlier experience that felt closely related.
When I entered high school I was short, thin and weighed only 89 pounds. The wrestling coach came up to me one day and asked if I was interested in joining the team. He needed a boy in the 95lb. and under weight class. I didn't want to do it, but he convinced me that it would be helping out the school and the wrestling team, so I agreed. I was a terrible wrestler. I made the varsity team only because there was no one else to oppose me. Being small and not very popular, I admired the guys who were athletic and confidant, especially with the girls. They wore their letter jackets proudly and always congregated together. The girls were either flirting with them or glancing over and talking about them. This to me was an exclusive club.
My first year of wrestling was a disaster. I lost every match but one and usually by being pinned. Throughout the season, I desperately wanted to quit, but the coach kept encouraging me and so I kept on. This was a private school in St. Louis county. The majority of students were from out of state and boarded. I was a local student and we were referred to as “day-pups” short for day pupils. We were bussed to school and back home again. Most day-pups were not part of the “in-crowd”. There were exceptions, but I wasn't one of them. The faculty encouraged students to attend all athletic events, so the wrestling matches usually had a big crowd of supporters. Week after week, match after match nearly the entire school watched the painful process as I started off each match and promptly got pinned by a more skilled wrestler. I could hear the individual voices in the crowd “Come on Mike, you can do it! Come on, come on! Awwww.” And it was over that fast. Students would talk about the various interesting holds that pinned me. “That last one looked sort of like a pretzel hold.” The very last match of the season, I managed to tie my opponent, whoopee.
When the season was over, to my surprise, I had earned a letter in wrestling. By wrestling in every varsity match, I had accumulated just barely enough points. I didn't feel I deserved it and had no plans of wearing a letter jacket or sweater, but my mom convinced me otherwise. Her argument was that I had earned it by persevering all those weeks of humiliation and not quitting. She had a point and then I thought about wearing it around school, Maybe the girls would be attracted to me like they are to the other guys. So I allowed her to sew the big gold P on a sweater and wore it to school one day.
I felt extremely self-conscious wearing it. When I entered one of my classes, a boy, who wasn't a hotshot either, said to me something like, “Look at the big letter-man. What did you do win one match all season?” I don't remember what I said in my defense, but I thought, I didn't even win one match. After class ended, I stashed the sweater in my locker and never wore it again.
I hadn't worn anything to identify myself as a Vietnam veteran until recently. I'm not proud of having been involved in the war, but I feel a sense of camaraderie with fellow veterans and also want to honor those who didn't return or were wounded. In 2009 I put a sticker on my motorcycle and a pin on my hat. It hadn't been a popular thing to identify oneself as a Vietnam veteran until after the first Gulf war. Vietnam was the worst, most challenging, most exhilarating and most frightening year of my life. When that other veteran put down Intelligence personnel, I took it personally. I felt my war experience was being discounted by association. For a brief moment, I again became that little nerdy guy who didn't feel worthy of being in the exclusive club. Well I am in this club and very quickly the unworthy part was superseded by an “angry vet” part, which leads to other stories yet to be written.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Making Mochi with the Ancestors

It's the Christmas holiday and Katie and I are in Hawaii spending time with her son and his family. Hawaii is the only place in the US that feels like a foreign country, an Asian country to be more precise. When I started writing this blog entry, it was Christmas eve and we were sitting in the food court at Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, at a table adjacent to the Kansai Yamato Mochi stand. It's very crowded here at the mall and there's a line of people at the stand. In the display case, arranged in neat rows, are pink, green and white round, plump mochi cakes. Mochi is pounded sweet rice. It is extremely chewy and eaten as a snack or dessert. Some of the cakes have a toasted coating, some are filled with sweet bean paste and some have no filling at all. I can't think of an equivalent food from my mid-west background. At a time when I might eat a cream cheese Danish, a Japanese person would eat a mochi cake. I don't think a mochi stand would survive very long in Green Valley, Az. where we live, but Katie would love it if one tried.
When I was in Vietnam in Army Intelligence, I worked closely with Vietnamese interpreters and spent my tour of duty questioning Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians. Ever since that time I have felt comfortable around Asian cultures in general. During the TET celebration of 1968, before all hell broke lose, an interpreter named Tan invited me to his family's home for the holiday dinner. His was not a family that could afford feeding guests. In spite of this, they managed to put out an elaborate spread of food, much of it I didn't recognize. I was 20 years old at the time and the only Asian food I'd eaten previously was canned Chun King chow mein. I remember especially liking the crispy noodles that came in a separate can. I didn't see any these crispy noodles at Tan's family celebration, but I made up my mind that I would accept and eat graciously whatever was served. To my surprise the food was delicious. Later, Tan told me what some of the foods were and I was glad he hadn't told me ahead of time. One of the dishes I remember was peanuts in ducks' blood. I thought of it as a yummy dish with a dark tangy sauce. While we were enjoying the meal, I noticed another full set of serving dishes over to the side that nobody touched. Tan told me that that food was for their dead ancestors. I wondered whether the family would eventually eat this food, or throw it away, but I never found out.
Christmas in Hawaii is also about getting together with family and friends and eating a lot of carefully prepared delicious food. I guess that's really no different from anywhere else. 
Our daughter-in-law is Japanese, and she invited us to participate in one of her family's holiday traditions, making mochi the old fashioned way.
When we arrived at her cousin’s house, the process was already underway. It was all taking place outside the house on the driveway and in an open two car garage. After being introduced around, I stood and watched for a while. The men handled the activities on the driveway and the women stood in the garage facing each other across tables. In the corner of the driveway, close to the house was a stack of wooden rice steamers over a heat source. In the center of the driveway was a large stone bowl. One of the men grabbed the top rice steamer and with help poured the softened, cooked rice into the bowl. Some of the women, including our daughter-in-law, had soaked the rice over several nights and now it had been steaming for I don't know how long. Three men or boys then started to mash the rice with wooden sticks.043 This is the most tedious part and even our 6-year- old grandson, Christopher, was even allowed to do this. This took about 5 to 10 minutes and was the most tiring part of the whole process. One of the older men kept checking to see if the rice granules were broken down enough. When given the OK, the rice mashers stepped aside and another man, wielding a large wooden mallet, began to rhythmically pound the rice. The pounding seemed to be the centerpiece of the mochi making process and the part that transformed the sticky mass into a rubberier substance. Everyone stopped to watch. The mallet was heavy and needed to come down with force and accuracy. Between each pound, another man moistened and turned the ever-thickening batch. When the glutinous product was ready, it was placed on the table where the women are standing. Each time this was done, the women commented on the look and feel of that particular batch. Now the forming of the mochi cakes began. 

052The women worked quickly with skilled hands. Before long there were several boxes filled with perfectly round, plump mochi cakes. This whole process continued all morning.
I got an opportunity to participate in most aspects of the process. I started off mashing. The least skilled part, the grunt work.  After mashing several batches, one of the men asked if I wanted a turn pounding. I had entered the holy grail of the process, the only part with spectators. On my second turn at pounding, I thought I was beginning to get the hang of it. One of the older men complimented me on my pounding technique. After working up a considerable sweat with the men, I asked the women if I could join them. They graciously made room for me at the table. Having worked as a baker years ago, it was somewhat familiar territory. I even received a few nods of approval at some of my finished products. I realized however that my mochi cakes weren't as smooth as the others and took me a lot longer to make.
I recently looked up a mochi recipe on the internet. It starts with rice flour and the cooking is done in the microwave. It only takes minutes from start to finish. What a difference from the process I had participated in. There is even a mochi machine, like a bread maker. It's all done automatically; you just add the ingredients. But the process Katie and I participated in wasn't about making the family's mochi. I witnessed this extended Japanese American family contentedly talking and laughing through an extremely labor-intensive, time-consuming process. This is something they do every year and something their mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts who are long gone did as well. Like Tan’s family, this family set aside some of the food for altars on New Year’s Eve. In both cases I had no doubt that the ancestors were right there, celebrating the occasion through the eyes of their children’s, children's, children, just as they'd done for centuries.