Thursday, March 26, 2009

Strange Adventures with the United States Air Force, Part 2

For Part 1 in this series, click here.

Making Friends

When you’re married to the military, you form friendships that last forever, no matter how much time or distance separates you from these friends. In our very surreal year at Mather AFB in Sacramento, California, we met Chris, the first of many good friends we made in the military. Chris was the quintessential dignified southern gentleman, a bit formal in manner and reserved (most of the time) in speech. He was also a bit older than most of the guys at Undergraduate Navigator Training and infinitely more mature.

We spent a lot of time with Chris because he was so much fun and so not a part of the JOC-Night ethos of navigator training I found so uncomfortable. George and I sat at the table a few weeks ago and reminisced about good times spent with Chris. Most of the stories and snippets of memory involved a healthy dose of laughter. Chris had a wonderfully self-deprecating and dry sense of humor that snuck out at odd moments. For instance, we were all watching television one night when a commercial for Rogaine came on. Chris, who was prematurely balding, muttered, completely deadpan, “Doesn’t work.”

He could also spin a funny story with himself as the butt of the joke. Our favorite—the one that always pops to mind whenever we’re discussing Chris—is the xylophone story.

Chris grew up in a very musical family, so when he went to high school, he realized the cool kids who played instruments played in the marching band. Being far too dignified to want to dance around with a trombone or saxophone, he quickly noticed that the percussionists spent practice sitting under a tree while everyone else rehearsed dorky dance moves in the blazing Georgia sun. Being a smart young man, Chris wanted to be with the drummers hanging out in the shade. The only percussion instrument not already taken, however, was the xylophone.

The xylophone had to be firmly strapped onto him and didn’t come off easily. So when he had the luxury to sit in the shade while the rest of the band practiced dance moves, Chris had to kneel with the xylophone resting on his lap, hunching over to take the strain off his shoulders.

Yeah, that really impressed the girls.

Then, there was the day trip to San Francisco, during which Chris almost got us shot at the Army’s beautiful Presidio Officers’ Club by asking, loudly, “How do the grunts rate this?” Well-mannered southern gentlemen simply don’t say things like that, and the incongruity still makes me giggle. But not in front of Army officers.

George and I had the same favorite day in 1988. We went with Chris to Lassen National Park to hike. It was a gorgeous California day, sunny and not too hot. We had backpacks loaded with water and sunscreen, and were wearing comfortable walking shoes. We took our time enjoying the scenery as we climbed Mt. Lassen and poked around the volcano’s caldera, with whiffs of brimstone adding spice to the adventure. We also made condescending comments about a group of sunburned Mennonites who had hiked the mountain without water and wearing terrible shoes.

Never, ever make condescending comments about Mennonites. They may not believe in karma, but karma believes in them.

We’d drunk all the water we brought by the time we got down from Mt. Lassen and should have headed home, but a friend had recommended the Bumpass Hell trail, which was supposed to be fairly short so we did it without water. Bumpass Hell has bubbling mud pots and a much stronger odor of brimstone than the caldera, and the hike was longer than anticipated. Much longer. The three of us death marched out of Bumpass Hell feeling parched and hot.

Karma really is a bitch.

Then we got lost trying to drive out of the park. Remember, there were no Tom-Toms in 1988, and I was with two navigators-in-training. Combine these two facts with our dose of bad karma, and we were destined to get lost. All we wanted was a restaurant to drink gallons of water and eat something that didn’t make us feel sick, but the one place we found in the park was, of course, closed. I don’t remember the meal we eventually found, but I do remember the time in the car because Chris proposed a game in which one person starts a story and passes it off to another person who adds to the story and then passes it on. This was an excellent distraction from our dehydration headaches and general frustration.

Our first oral-tradition epic included a mystery that took our detective to Big Al’s Nudist Colony and Farm Cooperative. It would have been a best-seller if we’d written it down, but now, 21 years later, all I remember is Big Al’s Nudist Colony and Farm Cooperative, which Chris cleverly contributed to the story line. Our second oral epic devolved into a bad episode of Miami Vice, but it carried us, exhausted, all the way home. Genius needed its sleep.

When we compared notes the next day over lunch, however, it turned out none of the three of us got any sleep because we all had horrible sunburns on our necks and ears and the backs of our legs. Lying on a pillow with blisters forming on your neck hurts. A lot. Sunscreen doesn’t work well when it stays in the backpack all day and never touches your skin.

Isn’t it amazing how three smart, college-educated young adults can be so unprepared and plain ol’ stupid? Honestly, it’s moments like this that remind me how incredibly lucky we are to have survived as a species.

You might be wondering why George and I both remember this day so fondly, given the extreme discomfort of dehydration headaches and sunburns, but when you go through a day like that with a good friend, the memory of companionship definitely trumps the discomfort.

Today, Chris runs his own cockpit resource management company and is happily married to Ruth, who teaches English as a second language and keeps everyone laughing with her own delightfully warm sense of humor. They have two talented daughters who were kind enough to dress my elder son in a medieval gown to sing karaoke while I snapped pictures during a visit to their home in 2005. These pictures will be extremely useful when Nick is a teenager.

Old friends come in handy for the darnedest things, don’t they?

Friday, March 20, 2009


Because having two blogs just isn't enough, I've started a third blog on STAMPING! So if you're interested in rubber stamping, check it out!

Simpicity by LateBlossom

Thursday, March 19, 2009

September Can't Come Soon Enough

Our six-year-old son Jack has atypical autism. Three years ago, he could communicate wants and needs fairly well, but most of his intelligible speech consisted of Blue’s Clues dialogue, “I love you, Mommy,” and “I want chocolate milk.” While his speech is definitely not developing typically, he has made enormous progress. He does not babble anymore, still says “I love you, Mommy,” and (Praise God!) uses more and more spontaneous speech every day. As you read these examples of Jack-Speak, you’ll see how incredibly blessed we are and how hard it is not to laugh all the time.

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes, Jack.

Jack: Mommy, Thomas is a steam engine, and he’s gots blue paint, and a black funnel, and blue paint, and he’s gots a number 1, and I want to see Thomas just like this Thomas [holds up little blue Thomas engine]. I’m going to see him in September. Mommy, do I go see Thomas in September? I miss Thomas. He’s a steam engine, and he’s gots blue paint, and a black funnel, and axles, and wheels, and he has the number 1 on him. [Note: A real train that looks like Thomas visits our area each September.]

Jack [getting off the bus one day in January]: Mommy, it’s trying to get warm outside!

Jack: Mommy, what are those pipes for?
Me: The sewer.
Jack: What’s that?
Me: When you flush the potty, what’s in the toilet goes into the sewer pipes.
Jack: But what time is it?
Me: Eleven o’clock.
Jack: Why is it eleven o’clock?
Me: It just is.
Jack: I’m going to miss Thomas.
Me: I know.

Jack: Mommy, are we going to Target?
Me: Not today.
Jack: Mommy, I want a Ben Ten watch just like Jacob.
Me: Not today, honey.
Jack: My name is Jack. Mommy, I want a Ben Ten watch just like Jacob.
Me: Not today, Jack.
Jack: But I thought you loved me!

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes, Jack.

George: Jack, are you eating toothpaste?
Jack: No.
Nick [tattle-tale voice]: I saw you!
Jack [happy voice]: Sorr-eeee!

Jack: Mommy, can I just be naked in my room?
Me: Sure, Jack.

George [in a stern voice]: You don't hit me or speak to me that way. Period.
Jack: Don't call me Period.

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes, Jack.

Kindergarten Aide: Jack, come to the table. It’s time to write your story.
Jack: Bossy Boots.

Me: I want to steal your nose. [I try to pinch his nose between my knuckles.]
Jack: No, no! I don’t want you to steal my nose!
Me: Really? Well, can I kiss it?
Jack: Okay.
Me [after kissing his nose]: Your nose is so cute!
Jack: And my face is, too.

Jack: Can I have a juice full of a box?

Jack [yelling]: Mommy, come watch me!
Me: Okay. [I walk to top of basement stairs, look down, and see Jack, in his underwear and socks, jumping on the little trampoline.] Jack, why are you naked?!? Put your clothes on!
George: [uncontrollable and unhelpful laughter from kitchen]
Jack: But Mommy…[smiling]
Me: Put your clothes on, naked boy!

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes, Jack.

Jack: Mommy, can I put on my pajamas?
Me: No, it’s not seven o’clock yet.
Jack: But I thought you loved me!

Jack: I’m so disappointed in you, Mommy.
Me: Why?
Jack: Because I want to see Thomas.

Me: Come here, Jack. I need some lap time with my baby.
Jack: I’m not a baby, Mommy. I’m just a big boy.
Me: How big are you?
Jack: I’m just bigger than an ant.
Me: Bigger than an ant?
Jack: Yeah.

Jack [to George as he leaves for work]: You be careful with your new car, okay, Daddy. Don’t die, okay.

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes, Jack.

Me: It’s time to brush your teeth and go to bed.
Jack [walking up the stairs, very sad]: I was just thinking about Thomas.
Me [to George]: Oh, the tragedy of it all.
Jack: Mommy, I was not traveling. I was just thinking about Thomas.

Jack: Mommy, can I have M&Ms for breakfast?
Me: No. You may have a banana or cereal.
Jack: But I thought you loved me!

I ask Jack to let Hoover out, and he starts to do so but decides he needs to pee instead, so he runs to the bathroom. I ask Nick to let Hoover out (because this is why I had children in the first place…to let the dog out), and Jack yells from the bathroom, “Remember, Hoooover!!! Safety firrrrrst!”

Jack: Daddy, my tummy wants a juice box.

Jack comes inside rubbing his knee.
Me: What happened?
Jack: The blood started to bleed me.

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes.

Jack [in trouble and not allowed to watch movies, comes to me carrying his Stitch stuffed toy]: Mommy, Stitch wants to watch Winnie the Pooh.

Jack: Mommy, does you have your pajamas on?
Me: Yes, I do.
Jack: Oh, Mommy! [throws arms around me] I’m so proud of you! You are my best friend!

Me [in silly voice reserved for the dog]: Hoover, my brother, come here and give me kisses.
Jack [walks over from across the room, very serious]: Mommy, look at me. I have something to say to you.
Me: What is it, Jack?
Jack: Mommy, Hoover is not your brother. He is a dog, okay?
Me: Oh, okay Jack.
Jack: Nick is my brother. Okay?

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: I’ve already answered that question. What do you think?
Jack: Yes.

On a fish-shaped piece of art, Jack has written, “Penguins like fish with sprinkles.”

Jack: Mommy, you are my best lady. I love you.

Jack: I miss Thomas. Mommy, after it’s September, can we go see Thomas?
Me: Yes, Jack.

Note: If you want more information on Jack's language development and autism, please visit my Questioning Autism blog.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tower of Babel

In the Disciple II Bible Study I’m taking, we recently read the familiar account of the Tower of Babel, in which God creates confusion in the languages of mankind. The lesson—a good one, no doubt—is not to be prideful or too trusting in mankind’s greatness. But when God throws mankind a metaphorical load of lemons like that one, I can’t help but look for the lemonade. Sure, miscommunication leads to war, conflict, hurt feelings, and humility, but hey, at times, it can be extraordinarily entertaining. So just for fun, let’s explore this upside to the Babel fall-out.

Before we start, please understand that I am incompetent in three languages. I know just enough Italian, Spanish, and Latin to embarrass myself utterly and completely in Florence, Madrid, and a medieval monastery. Frankly, it’s easy enough for me to sound like an idiot in my native tongue, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who struggle to learn another language since I have failed at it thrice.

This does not, however, keep me from laughing hysterically at the website Engrish,
where people post pictures of badly translated English on packaging, signs, t-shirts, and airplane lavatories.

Have I said how much I LOVE the internet lately?

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some links to pictures in Engrish that make me happy, in a warped and weird sort of way. They prove that if you don’t try to make sense of “life, the universe, and everything,” then “life, the universe, and everything” can be highly entertaining.

When Jesus Says Yes

Do Not What?

Mailman of Butterfly

Bread Butter Pudding Isn’t the rhyme scheme nice?

My favorite, because it’s just so thought-provoking, don’t you think?

Some Engrish translations actually make sense but make you laugh anyway.


In or Out

A Lot?

Out of Control?

After you finish reading my essay, please, please go spend an hour perusing the other offerings.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled essay for a Public Service Announcement: Please note that some entries in Engrish are a bit (or more than a bit) vulgar. As of today, the first picture is particularly, um, rude. Viewer discretion is advised, and surfing Engrish when small children are around is not recommended by the Mommy Censorship Committee. Kids want to know what you’re laughing at…. You have been warned.

Back to our regular programming.

You can even make your own Engrish using Babel Fish’s free online
translating site. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Babel Fish is responsible for at least a few of the funny mistranslations on Engrish. In translation services—as in so much in life—you get what you pay for. But in this case, not paying anything can provide hours of entertainment.

First, I typed in “The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers…” (lines from a poem by William Wordsworth). Then I clicked to have this translated into Japanese, and then back into English. The result: “The world is our remainders; it is slow, and directly, profit, using, we our powers put in place wastefulness.”

I did the same with a quotation by Michael Pritchard: “Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed.” This time, I filtered it through Italian and back into English. It came out: “The fear is that small darkroom in which the negations they are developed.”

Next, I typed, “To change and to change for the better are two different things.” Filtered through German, it becomes “Too for the better to change and change are two different things.”

I could waste a lot of time playing this game. Or, filtered through Portuguese, I could “waste much time the game of this game.”

There’s a cosmic Babel Fish between men and women even when they speak the same language. Lots of books have been written trying to explain one sex to the other, but does anyone honestly think the communication gap has closed at all? What comes out of a woman’s mouth gets magically transformed into something completely different before it enters the ears of a man. “I want you to cook something light this weekend” becomes, in the ears of a man who shall remain nameless, “I want you to make a Bolognese sauce with a pound of bacon and ground pork shoulder over potato gnocchi topped with Parmesan cheese.” (Oh, my gosh…this was so good!)

Of course, the reverse is true as well. A man might say, “These steaks are thin” and the woman will hear, “You never buy the right meat and now you’re going to eat burnt offerings because you were too stupid to ask for thicker cuts.” This leads the woman, who shall remain nameless, to tell the man that he can go to the butcher himself from now on…a clear over-reaction given that the steaks ended up being perfectly medium rare and ever-so-tasty.

These are purely hypothetical examples, of course.

Language is a slippery thing, isn’t it? If people who speak the same language fluently can still have a hard time communicating, how much harder is it when other languages get dragged into the equation? Recent brain research has begun unraveling the mystery of language, but I seriously doubt that understanding more about how our brains generate language will help us overcome the communication barriers that afflict so many aspects of life on this wonderful planet. We just have to keep babbling around this life trying our best to understand and to be understood.

Perhaps a little fortune cookie wisdom from Engrish will help:

Q. What is contain it everything?
A. Wisdom

On the other hand, perhaps it won’t help at all.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

25 Things

This list, slightly modified for the blog, came from a tag I received from my cousin Kathy on FaceBook. It’s been a strange week full of symphonic coughing and aching heads, not at all conducive to coherent thought. I prefer to think of this post as a literary version of an atonal improvisational jazz piece…just because I need to feel smart right now and pretending to know something about music suits my very strange and heavily medicated mood.

If, perhaps, you were thinking I’m normal or something, this list may convince you otherwise.

1. In high school, I fully expected to be a scientist of some flavor, perhaps a biochemist or marine biologist.

2. Item 1 came to an end when I took Organic Chemistry my first semester at Duke. The Gross Chemistry Building, hidden by a screen of pine trees, was an ugly edifice of white concrete, black marble, cold lighting, and surly people walking around with hunched shoulders, glowering. The third floor of Allen Building, on the main quad of West Campus, housed the English department. Allen Building was an elegant campus-Gothic edifice of gray stone, pointed arches, fabulously warm lighting, and professors who smiled at you even if you weren’t in their classes. This friendly environment, combined with the fact that I almost flunked Organic Chemistry, led me to major in English.

3. In college, I knew how to use every single button on a scientific calculator. Within five years of graduating college, the only button I could remember how to use on the top half of a scientific calculator was the square root key. I still can use the bottom portion of a scientific calculator pretty well, though, which really isn’t saying much, is it?

4. I am legally blind in my right eye. Fortunately, it’s correctible to 20/20, so it’s really not a big deal. Besides, Christmas lights look especially beautiful to me without corrective lenses.

5. I am terrified of snakes. Even knowing this, George took me to the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-up in Texas many years ago because he wanted to run a race with some friends. I forgot my glasses (just brought prescription sunglasses that were too dark for inside), so the world looked fuzzy and indistinct, which heightened my fear enormously. It didn’t help when snake handlers put a couple of big rattlers ON A TABLE and annoyed them until they rattled, but of course I couldn’t see them until I was within striking distance, at which point I had a mini heart attack and ran screaming like a little girl. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get away from the sound of rattles because someone was selling rattles on sticks, and hundreds of kids and adult male rednecks were running around shaking the damn things. My ears kept hearing that terror-inducing rattle everywhere we went, and uncontrollable surges of adrenaline kept telling me to FLEE BECAUSE YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!!!!

6. During a recent “Come up with weird or gross band names” game at the dinner table, I came up with Toe Jam, which can’t possibly be original because it seems so obvious, but I swear I never heard it before and am really, really proud of myself for thinking it up. As you can tell, I live in a testosterone-rich environment that considers these sorts of topics polite table conversation.

7. If you stacked all the cardstock I have in my craft room, it would measure about 25 inches tall, which is not enough. I’ll let you know when I’ve reached enough. Don’t hold your breath.

8. I cannot tell you how many rubber stamps I have. The exact number is classified. In the case of rubber stamps, I utilize the following equation to determine the proper number to own: x + 1 = e, where x = the number of stamps I currently own and e = enough. George uses this equation for bicycles.

9. I rarely have “favorites.” There’s just too much in life to love and be enthusiastic about. So no favorite book, no favorite dessert (how do you choose between apple pie and brownies?), no favorite movie, no favorite color…. You get the picture.

10. Prayer is important to me.

11. I’m a first-born pleaser who wants everyone to play nicely and get along.

12. Hello, my name is Susan, and I’m a Coca-Cola addict. As of 3/5/09, it’s been six months and 26 days since my last drink. I really, really want one. Right now.

13. I hate my nose.

14. I am dangerously incompetent in three languages: Italian, Latin, and Spanish. I’m not entirely incompetent in Old English, but I read Middle English like I was born in 1360 in London. I wish I were as fluent in Italian and Latin, but this flaw in my education doesn’t keep me up at night.

15. When I received my first USAF Officers Club card in 1988, it showed my name as Mrs. George Raihala and sent me into my first true feminist snit. The memory of it still makes me mad.

16. My first work-study job was ordering and filing cards for the card catalog at Perkins library at Duke—a job which is now obsolete. This makes me feel really sad…and old.

17. I helped organize a graduate student conference at Wichita State for area universities so graduate students could get practice in presenting papers and participating in the profession. I also read a paper on Beowulf at another conference. A version of this paper received an A+ from my Anglo-Saxon Literature professor because it was really good and an A- from my poetry professor because it was “too long.” The poetry professor was annoyed he couldn’t grade it lower because he totally disagreed with my theoretical approach but knew the Anglo-Saxon lit professor had already given it an A+. I disliked the poetry professor intensely and enjoyed watching him squirm. I am not proud of this. But I am proud of the paper.

18. I hate to cook and love to eat. This combination has taught me a lot about putting up with necessity, whining about it only a little, and being really grateful for a husband who wishes he were a chef and for living in a country where food is good and plentiful.

19. When I taught at Troy University’s Ft. Benning campus, the Army Rangers referred to me as the Mussolini of the English department. Oddly, they meant this as a compliment, and, even more oddly, I took it as one.

20. During my twenties, I really despised children. Some of them feared me. I was happy about this.

21. One day in early 1999, at the age of 32, I was putting away laundry and spontaneously started humming the theme song to Winnie the Pooh. That’s when I knew I was pregnant. A week later, the pregnancy test confirmed it. Children no longer fear me. I am gloriously happy about this.

22. My first kiss happened on a dark beach on Kiawah Island when I was sweet sixteen. The boy’s name was Schuyler Sweet, and he was a gentleman.

23. I like the classical Greek philosophy of moderation in all things. I cannot always live that philosophy, especially when faced with chocolate or Coca-Cola, but I like it.

24. I’m generally comfortable with ambiguity, but only after I have looked for answers. If none pans out, I’m okay with not knowing something “for sure.” This contributed significantly to my success in literary studies, where ambiguity works like fertilizer for the mind. It also makes me relatively tolerant of religious and political views that differ from my own.

25. My house is a mess. At this moment, I truly don’t care. Maybe I will care tomorrow. Maybe not. All I know is that ten years ago, it would not have looked like it does right now.