Thursday, September 28, 2006
Kirk watched the sky. I watched Kirk. I watched him think about crop dusters and the local airport. I watched him check the temperature and the local humidity, and I wondered about what the range was for keeping small pox virulent for air delivery. We listened for the high-flying military planes that were patrolling the coast, and I considered rumors I had heard about cloud seeding, triggering sudden and violent storms that could, maybe, wash things clean.
But I didn't ask.
We walked to the crumbling cliff north of our house, a place where there are precarious benches anchored in concrete. The ground erodes away beneath them, and you end up swinging your legs like small children at a cafeteria lunch table. Underneath, the tide pounds into hollows, making echoey booms and sending spray shooting up every fourth or fifth wave. The rain came steaming down, and lightning flashed over the water.
A friend said the next day that it felt like the whole world was raging, a natural catharsis. It helped, she said, it cleared the air.
Yes, I answered. I hope so.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Kirk never lost the need to check the news - it was the first thing on in the morning, the last thing at night. At work he always had a news site ticking away somewhere on his computer, and throughout the day I could expect IM's updating me if anything happened that he felt was important.
That day almost all shoes had been found and put on, nearly all lunches finished and dumped to the bottom of backpacks to be squashed by notebooks. Kirk was a couple of minutes from going out the door to work. And the first plane flew into the World Trade Center.
I was the one who saw it - everyone else was bustling around getting ready to go. I called to Kirk and he ran in and froze.
'Is it...?' I asked, but he didn't answer. I could see the color drain from his face, literally washing down and leaving him totally grey. He was utterly still.
'Kirk, do you think...?'
And the second plane hit.
I know the kids were asking questions, I know the television commentor was talking, but my memory is of total silence. His silence.
Then the Pentagon - and Kirk knew people who worked there, had gone there himself for briefings I believe. Black smoke. And our phone began to ring.
'Hello? Yes. I saw. Yes. No - no, absolutely not. Of course I'm sure. You'll be fine, he'll be fine. No. Okay, I'll see you there.'
It rang again, and again - five or six times and always the same conversation. Did you see what happened? Should we go out? Can we drive on the Bridge?
He turned to me.
'I know Kaj, I know, I'm sorry. Do you... '
But I didn't even know what to ask.
He reassured the kids then - don't worry, you'll be fine. These guys, their religion forbids killing children, it's one of the worst things they can do. They believed him, trusted him, went off to school.
'I'll try and call J, see what's happening.' J was his close friend and partner from the counter-terrorism unit. 'I need to know... I'd better go.'
And he drove to work.
I don't remember most of the rest of that day. In the afternoon I took the kids to Half Moon Bay to soccer practice, and remember having a parent ask in a totally normal way 'so, how are you?' and I couldn't think what to answer. Kirk met us there at the middle school field, and we sat together on a worn wooden porch outside one of the barracks.
He hunched over in his black suit and studied the ground. Silence again.
He had written it. He had suggested that a terrorist could use a commercial plane, one loaded wtih fuel, as an effective bomb. What if, he had written, what would we do if... and they had laughed. No one would do that. No one had ever done that. It has never happened before.
There are buildings that will be targeted, he said. Bin Laden failed once with the Trade Center - he's going to try again. And there are others, and he listed them. The Pentagon. The White House.
He wasn't the only one of course, and it wasn't that he sat as a Cassandra spouting true prophecy and ignored by the Powers that Be. It might have made no difference even if someone had listened. After all, the terrorists have the advantage - they only need to succeed once. But maybe, maybe this time like Y2K, things could have been averted.
Across the field the boys' team scrimmaged in the fading light; the evening fog began to roll over the grass. Parents were gathering in small groups, talking quietly. I felt removed from them and from Kirk. I knew too much to feel quite a part of their reaction, too little to be part of Kirk's private pain. He stood up, held out his hand.
'I'll have to see if there's anything I can do.'
'There probably isn't, but I have to see.'
'Okay. Let's go home.'
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Children 2 and 3 took up soccer over the summer (Child 1 was too old for the fledgling program) and launched yet another family interest.
We tried to remember that we were here for a longer time - that this was meant to be home for a while. It wasn't easy; the nomad mentality was part of us, and we weren't used to viewing any place as permanent. The house itself didn't feel like it - all 1970's dark wood panelling, 1980's dusty rose paint in the master bath, 19 whoever-thought-this-was-a-good-idea aging elephant grey carpet. But the beach was two blocks away, and every night we could walk down and watch the tide come in. On the rare clear evenings we could even see the milky way, and we would take the binoculars down to show the kids the fuzzy blob of Saturn, and the small cluster that made up the Pleiades. That was home. That and the warmth of the people we met.
So we took up the pattern - work, school, play.
It was Autumn, 2001.
Monday, September 25, 2006
He broke an ankle one night when we were in a park - they had recently watered the grass so it was a bit slick and he was goofing around somehow. But typically he insisted on hobbling painfully back, casually inspecting the swollen, discolered thing, and announcing he was just fine, done this lots before, definitely just a sprain. He didn't go in for an xray for several days to learn it was actually cracked.
In Virginia he took a mogul a little wrong - not an earth one, but a stacked log beast with a sharp lip you had to pop your front tire over at just the right moment. He was going too fast, took the corner and forgot it was there. I kind of wish I had seen that one because he said it was pretty funny the way he rotated slowly forward. Less funny was landing wrong on top of the logs. He rode out, and then rode again the next day (moaning a bit), insisting it was "simply bruised" until he finally got himself checked out and was told he had broken four ribs. His contention was that the treatment was the same either way, so why worry? My feeling was tearing over rough single track with broken ribs wasn't either intelligent or a reasonable therapy. Didn't stop him though.
The pattern was the same in California. He managed to do some utterly bizarre thing to his toe (quite impressed the ortho doctor) that apparently happens only to professional atheletes, and then only on the fingers. Kirk happily messed around with splints, gauze, and tape until he finally worked out a complicated strapping solution. His doctor was delighted and, I think, actually presented the whole thing at a conference somewhere, dubbing the taping method as the "von Ackermann technique" or something. Since Kirk was the only person who had managed to do this to himself, it's probably not ever going to become a household term. Still - moderate fame and glory!
One of the funnier (yes, I do have a slightly dark sense of humor) happened when we were biking up in the local hills. Kirk was ahead as always and disappeared around a corner where we heard:
SPLASH... THUMP!... "I'm all right!"
We came around to find him staggering on the far side of a steep-banked stream, covered in mud, his helmet completely bashed in. The muddy water had masked the very deep ravine - just the right size to trap a front wheel. Kirk had gone arse over tea-kettle, landing headfirst in the mud. Well, I told him, at least he hadn't damaged anything he used. Again, he insisted he was just fine, although I did make him let me drive us home. Only after he was sure he was healed up did he admit he couldn't really remember much of the rest of that day.
I got used to it. I stocked the house with wraps and knee braces, ace bandages and instant cold packs. Our freezer always had one or two ice packs ready to go, and we had several stashes of medical tape, disinfectant and gauze. Bandaids hardly got a look-in.
There is a great deal my kids have inherited from Kirk. They have his sense of humor, his quick mind - they certainly have more his nose than mine (probably for the best). And from the time they were tiny the house has echoed to.... *crash*.... "don't worry! I'm all right!"
Thursday, September 21, 2006
So... he got a little bored. And when Kirk got bored he tended to find ways to occupy himself.
Take K, for instance. She was a beautiful, intelligent, charming woman with an unfortunate habit of confession. She just couldn't seem to stop herself from telling Kirk things. They weren't terrible things mind, no venal sins, or dreadful secrets, just things that fed his active brain in ways she might not have anticipated. One of those confessions took on a life of its own.
First Kirk let it be known that he knew Something about K. Something, the implication was, dark and sinister, or maybe just horribly embarassing. Naturally the entire group began to beg and plead to be told what Something was.
Oh no, Kirk said, eyes wide and innocent, I couldn't possibly tell you this Something, it is... just too ... no, I couldn't.
This went on for about two weeks. Then:
'Well.... maybe I could give a hint.'
I don't remember all the hints but 'Paintbrushes' was one and 'All of Cuba knows what's in a name' was another (I supplied that one. I never said I wasn't bored too)
Curiosity began to boil over. I think the meanest trick was when he wrote the whole thing out in white text at the bottom of an email and then happily claimed 'but I already told you!'
I think they managed to spin it out for a month or so. Finally K was supplied with proper accessories, and brought in some props for the denoument.
K (poor woman) had been the Castroville artichoke princess.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
He quickly made friends with one who did - a Gulf War veteran who had flown helicopters in Iraq. The other guys were slightly wary of them both, something Kirk didn't realize until a month or so after he started. There were about five of them walking across the courtyard when Kirk's friend's phone rang.
'See, man, that's why you two are scary.'
'What do you mean?'
'Every time X answers the phone he puts it away like it's some gun he just fired and cleared.'
Kirk looked at X - 'Got you there dude, I've even seen you slap your hip like you're checking for a side-arm.'
'Yeah, well you're worse, look at what you're doing with your umbrella. You look like you're about to demonstrate some CIA secret commando technique.'
'That's ridiculous,' Kirk flipped the umbrella again. 'I mean, I suppose I could demonstrate it, but then I'd have to kill you.'
In a world where the pecking order is established by the institution name on your MBA , sometimes it's nice to shake things up. Just a little.
Monday, September 18, 2006
The timing could have been better as well. The kids and I flew in to San Jose late on the night of December 22nd. It wasn't until a few days before we left that I realized we had done absolutely no Christmas shopping for the kids at all. None - no stocking presents, nothing for under the tree, nada.
So December 23rd we packed up the crew and took them to a 'brainy' toy store in San Mateo. With the subtlety of a Disney animator we casually suggested that they 'look around' and 'just see what they saw.' Yup, very smooth. Fortunately we have (had) trusting and slightly naive children who saw nothing funny about this and happily wandered the store while we tailed them and took notes. They also claim they didn't notice when I hustled them into the Target next door for spurious errands, nor did they see any large bags piled in the back of the truck. Now that I think about it, it's possible that I'm the trusting and naive one for believing them all this time!
We didn't even have a Christmas tree yet, but there was a sales lot outside of Half Moon Bay on the way down the highway towards home. There was a larger selection than I would have expected - still several dozen trees, although they were definitely the scraggly, also-ran variety. We picked out one that didn't lose all of its needles if you glared at it sideways, and headed for the lot owner. He was sitting dispiritedly on a bucket, listening to some country singer wailing about his truck.
'Yup.' he said, starting at our tree. 'O.K. Well, we're selling these here at a discount on account of its so close and that.'
He looked around at his half-full lot, looked back at us and brightened up as a brilliant idea hit him.
'In fact folks, it's buy one, get one free!'
Saturday, September 16, 2006
There is the Hari Krishna guy who sings his rather plaintive Krishna hymn every day under the 'art' on my way to work. He's been doing it for over a year now, and I've learned from him that there is only one Hari Krishna song, and apparently it only has one refrain of about eight bars. I think it also has only four words, but that might actually be two words with varying inflections. He has his guitar case open by his feet, but manages to seem utterly unaware of that fact, so entranced is he with his singing. He must get the shock of his life when he goes to put his guitar away and discovers all the change. Maybe he views it as a sort of monetary miracle of the virgin birth variety. Or maybe he seeds it with a few quarters and it's more loaves and fishes.
There's a fascinating aging hippie/entrepreneur who sets up shop now and then opposite Krishna man. He wears a slightly baggy suit (on a more than slightly baggy frame) and decorates himself with a scarf or a few strings of beads. He has trinkets for sale which makes him a dodgy type since technically he's supposed to get a permit, but by showing up only occasionally he has so far managed to avoid official eyes. He spreads his wares out, then talks about philosophy loudly to anyone who will listen and watches the young women out of the corner of his eyes.
Then there's karaoke man. It's more fun to watch the people passing him than to watch him - he's a bit boring actually: around thirty, slightly overweight, rather non-descript. But the people who pass him run an amusing gamut. Some walk by fiercely projecting that they have no idea there's a man belting out Bananarama's 'Venus' a semi-tone flat three feet away from them. Others have to stop and stare for a little while, shake their heads in disbelief, point out to their friends that there, right there, is a guy, a man, singing really badly, can you believe it? No - there. I saw someone stop and pull out a cell phone to call someone and share the experience - holding the phone up a few feet from karaoke man who sang blissfully on, smiling kindly at his audience. I'd like to think he has a hat down by his feet somewhere, because honestly I believe he'd do better than Krishna guy and the hippie combined.
But a couple of weeks ago I really had to give the pan-handling prize to the young man waiting for the bus. He was possibly the most perforated person I've ever seen - if he took all the studs out he'd qualify as a wind instrument - and sported the obligatory spiked hair and goth makeup. "Excuse me ma'am," he said politely, "could you spare some change for beer?"
I might have given him some too, just to encourage that sort of honesty. But it was 8 in the morning, and I do have some standards.
Friday, September 15, 2006
The east coast was out. We had enjoyed Virginia, but as tourists rather than residents. It was a bit too domesticated on the right side of the map, and too thoroughly populated. South of the Mason Dixon line was out as well, with a particularly firm X drawn through Texas. The desert Southwest was discarded without a second glance although we left a tiny amount of space for Colorado as a long-shot outsider. At the back of everyone's mind was the thought of going back to Alaska, but since Kirk wasn't in the petroleum industry and didn't do commercial fishing we thought it would be best to expand our search just a little. The north-west coast was our target - Washington or Oregon in particular. Both of us discussed seriously how we would think about California, Northern California only... but only just.
Naturally Kirk got an offer from a company in San Mateo, and before we knew it there was a whirlwind of contracts, and strange foreign phrases like 'stock options' and 'vesting period' were flying around. Strange place, this real world.
We pulled out Rand and McNally and took a serious look at things. San Francisco, San Mateo, San Jose spread themselves in an amorphous chalky orange blight across a huge swath of Northern California. We eyed it, glumly. We wanted rural, isolated, bereft of human life even (preferably with a good cheese shop, some excellent sushi, and a really nice bookstore or two. You know, the basics you find on every desert island), and we were heading into one of the largest cities in America. But... if you don't mind a little commute there's a tiny dot on Highway 1, just west of San Mateo and south of San Francisco. Half Moon Bay. Never heard of it - but it was extremely small and that was good enough for us.
Sight unseen, an arbitrary decision based on a tiny black spot on a map - Home.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
(while you're there, you really should read the rest of the blog - SpeakingAsAParent, it's joined my short list)
It struck me particularly, having just written about 9/11, because the author writes about destruction versus creation, about power, about motivation.
And I've been thinking about how sad it is that Islam has been, in so many ways, reduced to this. Sad, because their heritage is so rich, so vast, so wonderful. The golden age of Islam saw the highest achievements in science, mathematics, philosophy, literature, art, architecture that the world knew at the time (arguable, yes, I am aware that there are some great achievments in the far east and in the Christian west. Work with me). I think about some of the great characters - Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Ḵwārizmī writing about linear and quadratic equations in the 9th century, Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta covering over 70,000 miles in his amazing explorations (and beating the pants off Marco Polo I might add)or Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād Herawī designing unbelievable illuminations and miniatures. Creators, all of them at a time when my ancestors were probably still rolling in pig muck and bashing eachother on the head.
It's all still there, that culture, that delight in learning and beauty. It's just the crazed few who are so vociferous in their hate and ignorance. I'm an optimist. I think the creators will win.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
When we went to tour the school, one of the first things the principal did was mention the testing. She looked at us sourly, with our three mid-year transfers of unknown quantity. Testing, she said, was the school's top priority. I noticed she didn't mention how the school actually did on the tests. I also noticed that this elementary school - shabby, slightly down at the elbows - had no playground.
Child 1 came home and announced that it was 'selected' for special after school work. Selected meant that the teachers, whose salaries, promotions and even employment were all tied tightly to test results, would do anything to keep scores high. Our kids had not been groomed carefully through the Virginia curriculum (including local history) and so Child 1 was slung into extra tutoring. Luckily the tutor was about the only inspired teacher in the whole place, and Child 1 had a great time. The principle of the thing set my teeth on edge though. (edit: so did the principal. I have had to correct my spelling of her title all way through this post. I'm not sure what that means, but I have a feeling latent whatchamacallits and supressed whoojits have a lot to do with it. Principally.)
I was more than a little irritated that our children were judged before they had turned in a single assignment. These kids, and rest assured this is an unbiased opinion, were any school system's fantasy. They were bright, eager about learning, politely attentive and participatory in class, and never once had had a discipline issue. They were (remember, unbiased) practically perfect.* But the fear of the Tests hung over the school like a black cloud and without a Virginia Testing System result for each Child no one was taking any chances.
Turns out there was a reason for no playground. The school allowed the teachers to decide if they wanted to give recess time each day. Most teachers chose not to lose precious Test Preparation time. The kids said that twice a day (if they were lucky) the class was taken outside and told to run laps. I think the theory was they would sweat themselvse into exhaustion and stagger back in, quiescent and passive to have more Standard Learning poured into their flaccid little brains. (note to self, strong feelings about school appear to make upper case rationing unreasonable. Postpone project for later post. Also check tendency towards alliteration, and think hard about parenthetical asides which appear to be getting out of hand)
We had a run-in over the discipline policy as well. One of the kids came home quite upset because for four days in a row they had all had to keep their heads on the lunch room tables because of a minor infraction by one child. Once I got over the icky-shudder thought of my little darling's pristine cheeks pressed against a lunch-room table, I joined Kirk in getting worked up over this practice of punishing the innocent many over the sins of the guilty few. He wrote a fantastic letter to the principal about it. It went something like: Sacred American rights... rant rant... historical precedent.... rave rave... probably cutting remark about questionable psychology... rage rage... threat threat threat THREAT, yours cordialy, etc. It worked too, although I'm not entirely sure it endeared us to the administration.
There were a few other moments as well, and by the time we were getting ready to move (again mid-year, we always seem to do that), we were all five more than ready to shake off the proverbial dust. We thought the feeling would be mutual, and weren't shocked that the principal was hostile when we walked in the door. To our suprise though, it was anger over our leaving.
Turns out our questionable children were being counted on to raise the test scores for their respective classes. Gosh, just broke our hearts to do it, but...
*Note to practically perfect children - the past tense is not intended to reflect on your current perfection, only to work nicely with the story. Thanks to your amazing genetic heritage, and fantastic parenting (ahem) you have only improved on what should have been unimprovable. You are, my darlings, utterly marvelous. Now go clean your rooms, and if I find one more homework assignment has not been turned in there will be Blood For Breakfast!
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Kirk naturally was the opposite. He did martial arts, he had played football, he sweated on a regular basis even when not mandated by military authority. He even, and this baffled me, ran - on purpose, when nothing was chasing him. Gradually his strange ways began to influence me. While he was in Italy I went out and learned how to ski (all by myself, with full knowledge that I would be making an utter fool of myself. It's quite possibly the bravest thing I've ever done). When he came back we both took up mountain biking, and yes by the time we got to Virginia I was running.
Actually doing stuff like that became the main focus of our lives. We ran every evening we could (which wasn't all that often with Kirk's schedule), we biked throughout the weekend, and when it got cool enough at night we would go on base and play tennis while the kids played on the playground. Good times, but it's just possible that we weren't always sane about it.
Like the time it snowed, and there were no plows so the sloppy, wet, slushy snow stayed on the roads for over a week. Kirk got so frantic with cabin fever he convinced me after five days that the roads were clear enough and we could certainly get the bikes out. It wasn't until the end of the block, by which time he had already tipped over twice, and both of us were drenched past the knees, that he admitted that just maybe the six inches of icy water and snow was not going to make riding possible.
Or the day we went out to play tennis, both of us insisting that there wasn't that much wind, and besides it always dropped by the water anyway (!?). We passed the flag, whipped straight out from the pole, and refused to say a word. Hey! No waiting for a court - see, it's all good. Three serves in, even we had to admit the ball was taking a sharp 90 degree turn, and even standing at the far edge of the court to hit against the wind wasn't going to make a game possible. We solaced ourselves with sushi, and laughed at how ridiculous it was all the way home.
That fall, the fall Kirk got out of the Air Force, was incredible. He was on terminal leave (which always sounds rather sinister - like a lethal vacation or something), and because of the job intensity he was maxed out on time, so we had weeks in which he would ostensibly look for a job. He did do some job hunting, but mostly we were able to send the kids off to school, and then drive out to the trails.
We had found that our favorite biking trails connected by fire-road to another long track; there were maybe 10 miles or so of really nice single track altogether. The trails wind through oak forests, and that fall the leaves were unbelievable. During the day hardly anyone uses those trails, and we mostly had them to ourselves. Kirk would lead (so I wouldn't hold him back) and we would just take off. I wish there were a way to express it - the noise of the tires over the dirt track dusted with leaves, the slightly musty smell, the sunshine filtering through trees and dust. And several times we would come around a bend to find a buck with a full rack frozen for a moment. Magic.
It was perfect - and we never even got to the point of concern over the job. Not far into terminal leave Kirk got his first phone call, his first interview. The company flew him out to California, and by the time he got back he had an offer. At the end of his leave in November he would head out to start work and find us a home.
It was good, we assured each other. It was time to leave. It was the right thing to do. I'm just not sure either of us believed it.
Monday, September 11, 2006
I also thought about just not posting at all. It could be a silent tribute maybe; but when I tried that on for size the philosophy was too threadbare to cover the real problem - indecision, uncertainty, and probably a solid dose of simple cowardice. No, I need to say something.
But the difficulty is the timing. We're not there in The Story yet. We're close of course, but not yet there. Silly to argue timing now when I've been happily skipping back and forth like I have a DeLorean hyped up on stolen Lybian plutonium. Still, I want to tell it in the right place, it's important.
So I spent the day scanning the news and looking over headlines and things wondering what to say. Everyone seems agreed that 9/11 was a defining moment for our generation - possibly for our century. That morning changed everything.
That's what they wanted of course, the terrorists. They wanted to shake us, change us, rock the world. I wonder what they expected for us five years out? Did they think Islam would roll over the world, a return to the glory days of the middle ages when great Islamic armies ruled the Mediterranean, took Spain, took central Europe and knocked on the gates of Rome? Is that what those young men were promised with they got on the planes?
The problem with starting change is that once it leaves your hands, once you've gotten things in motion, you also lose control. The ripples from a stone in a pond analogy doesn't even work - too many factors, too many sentient, living beings involved; what comes after the event is impossible to predict fully.
So the only thing they can claim, finally, is the event itself. And that's a sad, sorry sort of victory. Their greatest achievement is death and destruction. No one achieves a real victory on emptiness - there has to be the other side, there must be creation and generation. And that they simply do not have. Even their initial victory was twisted out of shape by the heroism of flight 93. Some chose to die to take lives; others chose to save them.
In the end we get to choose the legacy, we have the right to decide what 9/11 means. And that's probably as personal as the day itself. For me it is still a thing of hope. Because we haven't crumbled as a society. As Americans we have had to accept that we are closer to the world than our borders would lead us to believe - but that also is a good thing. We have made mistakes, we continue to make mistakes, but we also watch ourselves, we learn, we grow. Maybe we don't feel quite as safe and secure as we did five years ago, but that safety was an illusion; knowing that makes us stronger. And I think, I hope, it helps us remember what we do have, and what a wonderful thing it is to be free, to have hope.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Until I realized that for the last ten minutes I'd been standing like a praying mantis. You know - elbows crooked, hands both flopped over. Holy exoskeleton, Batman, why? No wonder the guy was backing away - he thought I was going to pounce and chew his head off.
Or maybe he thought I was doing an homage to all the Auntie characters from classic 1940's Hollywood. Just sling a black patent leather pocket book over my arm and call me Mavis.
Friday, September 08, 2006
Bit ironic* that it took herculian effort to extricate ourselves from the army when we were desperate to go and they weren't really terribly interested in keeping us, while leaving the air force, which we didn't actually want to do at all, went quickly and easily.
Kirk polished up his resume (and let me tell you, a bit of intelligence work and some counter-terrorism is very interesting to translate into traditional business skills!) and registered himself with an executive head-hunting firm. We bought him a suit, three shirts and a handful of ties. For the first time in our marriage we were going to have to face the real world.
*Yes I'm aware that this is an incorrect use of the word ironic. However I wish some bright person would come up with a word that means what everyone thinks ironic means, because it's an extremely useful word. For the moment I'm simply going to misuse 'ironic' because it sounds better in the sentence than 'rather wry and interesting coincidence.' However my reckless abuse of the language will haunt me. No, honestly it will!
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Thing is I had been staring fixedly at whatever scared me - the major drop to the right, the large stump right off the trail etc - and like magic the bike would steer right for it. I would get terribly tense and the adrenaline would steam through and I would talk firmly to the bicycle about what I wanted it to do, still staring at that obstacle, and driving merrily right for it. But when I learned The Lesson, learned to pick out a good line and watch it everything became easy. No problem, if I can do that, I can do anything! Fear was gone; I was invincible.
But something happened well into our time in Virginia. We went out biking practically every week, and one of our favorite places was a three-trail series called [censored]. I'd tell you where it is, but it's such a delicious ride and I'd hate for it to get all chewed up and over-crowded. The three trails were supposed to be beginner, intermediate, and expert, but we all agreed that the intermediate was by far the most technical, almost irritating, and the expert was the most fun. Eventually only Kirk and sometimes one Child or Another would take the middle run while the rest of us played in the creek and waited. We had run those trails dozens of times, so I don't know why the fear came back.
I wasn't going to give in to it of course. I still went out every week and ran those trails. But it wasn't much fun any more when I was holding on like grim death and forcing myself to keep the pace up. There was some satisfaction in finishing in good time, in not giving up, but it wasn't getting any better. And I was too stubborn to even talk about it with Kirk.
And then it happened. I was about halfway through the expert trail, well behind Kirk who kept up a blistering pace; I came fast around a bend, hit a tree root polished slick with tire wear and covered with some fallen autumn leaves and everything went to pieces. I ended up smashing into a tree - the bike was somewhere in the other direction. When you hit that hard, when you've been going that fast, there's a moment of complete disorientation before everything falls into place again. 'hmmmm...' I thought, 'I suppose it finally happened. And boy is it going to hurt.' I was right.
I did stagger on foot for a while, but got impatient with that and managed to ride the rest of the way out. No broken bones, no spurting blood, no sucking chest wounds - everything must be fine. Well, a dinner-plate sized bruise on one leg, and some magnificent scrapes and bumps, but no permanent damage.
Kirk's face fell pretty far when he saw me coming out.
'I came off,' I said, probably unecessarily. 'Pretty hard.'
'Oh...' he said. 'I guess that's it then.'
And he was trying hard to be okay with that. Biking was a huge part of our lives by then, something we did as a couple and a family - something extremely important to him in particular. But he wasn't going to argue at this point. He knew I had been struggling. I had tried, I had failed, that was it.
Except it wasn't. Because that's the thing with fear - it's when you aren't quite sure what you're afraid of that it's bad; it's the endless possibilties. Once I crashed it wasn't an unknown any more. I'd done that, it wasn't that bad. The fear had borders, and so it retreated.
I'm not invincible any more. But I've learned my lessons. Keep your eyes on where you want to go. And sometimes, falling isn't the worst thing you can do.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
But there were other problems. The intelligence world is a strange place, a place where sources and information are impossibly valuable and are fiercely guarded - not just from the enemy without, but from other intelligence branches. CIA, DIA - all of those 'men in black' view eachother with deep suspicion. They do not, to put it mildly, play well with others.
And then there was the entrenched mindset, the very conservative status quo above Kirk. The people at that level had come into the intel world during the cold war, and their focus had never really changed. They were used to a particular kind of enemy - one that was established, codified, predictable; a known quantity with a home to protect. They were extremely good at dealing with this enemy, they knew it cold. But the new world, the world of Bin Laden was not like that, and they were slow to change. So Kirk was endlessly fighting against people who did not want to listen, people who firmly believed they knew everything.
I don't know how much of it was like that. I just know he hit wall after wall. Worse, I think he probably got a reputation for being a bit wild - for having crazy ideas. I'm just guessing, but from his frustration I think it's likely that certain people simply stopped listening to what he had to say.
So there he was, doing excellent work but in a way that made life nearly impossible. Because he was so successful he was being read into increasingly higher clearances - need-to-know only stuff, things only a handful of people would have access to. He was being drawn deeper and deeper into the counter-terrorism world, but wasn't being allowed to do what he felt he had to do. Eventually he realized he was completely caught. If he stayed in the Air Force he would be doing counter-terrorism for the rest of his career.
And we were at the decision point. Everyone in the military reaches that moment. If you sign up for one more tour you might as well stay in and collect your retirement; if you get out now you have time to make a new career for yourself. Kirk had his time in the army as an enlisted linguist, he had half-time credit for being in the ROTC, and he had his tours in Alaska and Virginia. If he stayed now, he was going to do this for the next ten years.
He loved the Air Force. He loved everything about it. And now he felt that he had no choice. He had to leave.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
When he was with us, he gave everything. He did his best to be wholly there for us when we went biking or fishing; he tried not to let the other life, the counter-terrorism life, intrude. It became harder and harder.
I realized it gradually, realized how much this work was taking over. It didn't happen when we were in the woods - when we were catching frogs down at George Washington's Retreat in Yorktown, or biking the three trails at Harwood Mills - but when we were driving around town there would be moments when he was distracted, different.
Like the time he glanced over as we passed a local bank, stiffened and muttered something about 'so they use that one...' I think he had recognized someone going into the bank, and now part of him was concerned with working out how to use this unexpected windfall of information.
One afternoon we were driving up the highway outside of Langley. I was reading a magazine - the Smithsonian I think - and I was chatting to Kirk about an article discussing the greatest achievement of modern medicine: the successful campaign against smallpox. Wasn't it amazing, I said, the way the WHO had managed it, wasn't it wonderful that the world was safe now from a disease that had been a deadly threat for thousands of years. Very quietly, his hands stiff on the wheel, he said 'it's not gone.'
Just that. But I knew - I knew that not only did he know that more than one country had kept live samples of the virus, he knew intimately the infection rate, the symptoms, the horrific scarring that those lucky enough to survive would suffer. He knew how it could be weaponized, had thought about delivery systems, had worked through countless scenarios in which various populations were targeted and infected.
And gradually I realized that he was living like that constantly. Everywhere we went, there was part of him looking around and evaluating targets, thinking about blast zones, considering mortality rates, political value, public reaction.
In order to stop a terrorist, you have to think like one. To be successful, you have to inhabit his mind. Kirk was very good at what he did, and it was beginning to take over everything. He was staring into Nietzsche's abyss.
Monday, September 04, 2006
It started the kids on what continues to be an enormous interest in and love for reptiles in general. When we went to Virginia they could find red-eared sliders in the ponds, mid-sized land tortoises, a variety of frogs, and multiple snakes (harmless mostly but one cotton mouth who was treated with deep respect). They learned to see the beauty in all of these amazing animals, and knew how to treat them with care.
When we were hiking once in California we came across a colony of small salamanders - gorgeous little things with tiny, impractical looking legs and bulgy eyes. We looked them up when we got home and found out they are quite rare and endangered and the kids solomnly decided not to tell any of their friends where the little critters were living - just in case. They felt a responsibility that was rooted in their lessons from Steve.
He inspired us all as well to want to go to Australia. Naturally we've never done it, but we'd all still love to at least visit and see some of the incredible things he shared. I think all the kids at one time or another secretly wanted to go work for Steve at his animal park.
There was an honesty to the man, and a generosity that was incredibly appealing. He was a part of our lives, and we will miss him.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
This crap making definitely gets worse if I'm under-employed. When we first lived in California and I hadn't gotten a job yet, Kirk once came home to find I had blown and handpainted half a dozen eggs - with extremely detailed, tiny little still-lifes. To give him credit he admired them very nicely and didn't once say, 'um... but what, exactly are these for?'
When I joined him in Texas, coming off an extremely intense final semester of college, we weren't going to be there long enough to get a job, so instead I encrusted a hand-made red bodice with thousands and thousands of silver bugle beads. It looked fantastic when it was done, but must have weighed at least 4 pounds and was perhaps a little extravagant for the 7 year old's halloween costume. The child had asked to be a vampire; I'm not sure how silver beads work into the legend.
That same child wanted to be a mermaid one year in Alaska so I sewed and then hand beaded several hundred separate scales in varying shades of blue, green and silver. She even had a magnificent tail picked out in beads. That one only took two months to finish off.
There was a dragon costume at one point, also covered with individual scales. There was the birthday party for which I sewed tiny flower pouches and made several dozen decorated paper cones to fill with candy. And there have been many, many small dolls, rabbits, bears and other items hardly worth mentioning.
And the funny thing is, I don't really like a lot of the stuff I design. It's often kitchy or country or calico while I love simple lines and neo-classical design. So I make all sorts of stuff that I wouldn't even want in my own house.
But since Kirk went missing I haven't really done much. There was the ring-wraith costume of course, but that's hardly worth mentioning (besides, that was cool). The impulse just wasn't there; the 'oh wow, how could I make that?' didn't even come up. I've been doing a huge amount of digital work of course - lots of photo work, lots of graphic design, lots of web stuff - but almost nothing physical.
Until last week when I was hit over the side of the head and realized there was something I simply had to make. It's not done yet, probably take another week or so. So...
...If you know anyone who would want a pink flannel pig dressed in a pin-tucked black witch's costume, hand beaded of course and probably with crotcheted lace on her socks... well, let me know.
I know I don't want it!
Saturday, September 02, 2006
What did Kirk think about ethnic profiling?
Good question. Kirk was a pragmatist. He also knew his stuff very, very well. So here's the pragmatic approach:
The majority of people who are acting in this particular terror war are of certain ethnic groups. Not only one group, mind. To ignore this fact would be stupid. To think that only people from a sub-set of ethnic groups would be involved is equally stupid. So ethnic profiling is a short-cut, but one of only limited use.
Kirk knew that really good intelligence work is much more important. You have to know your enemy to know who they are likely to use, who they will surround themselves with, and who will be most drawn to their cause.
These are people who use other people's children to kill and maim. They thrive on death, on power, on destruction. They have a particular background and a specific code of their own. Without understanding that you don't understand them.
He felt very strongly that using ethnic profiling for anything other than the very limited application it was suited for was not only wrong, it was dangerous. There is a tendency to think that doing something - anything - is useful, and worse that doing something means something else doesn't need to be done. It gives a false sense of security; it does both passive and active harm.It is, however, a starting point. When the FBI wants to catch a particularly dangerous criminal they might use a profiler - someone who can narrow down the most likely characteristics of the perpetrator. These characteristics often include ethnicity, but are certainly not limited to it. The intel world does the same thing - they look at ethnicity and religious affiliation because they'd be stupid not to. But to stop there would be useless.
In fact, the intel community doesn't use ethnic profiling in the way it's perceived commonly. They do not look blindly at only one demographic. They are looking at far more complex things than just ethnicity.
The public however, the great mass of humanity, can and does do so. And that's where the real problem lies.
When 9-11 happened many of our friends called Kirk. They wanted reassurance, they wanted to know if the Bay Bridge would be safe that day, if their children should go to school, if they should go to work. They wanted to know, over and over again, what they should do.
Go to a mosque, Kirk said. If you want to know what to do, go to a mosque. Talk to the people there. Talk to them as Americans, as people, as humans with a common grief and a common concern. Reach out and make friends and find their humanity because that is how you defeat this terrorism. Look beyond their racial background. Help them look beyond yours.
ADDED: I'm speaking for me now, not Kirk.
I was talking to someone about the security issues with flying now, the new restrictions the added searches and banned items because of the latest terrorist arrests. This person said that the terrorists had 'won' because our actions had changed as a result of their behaviour.
I disagree. First, there is nothing in the way we board planes that is sacred. We do not use our security screenings as part of our religious ritual. Our ability to take sports drinks on a flight does not change our moral code or alter our ethical belief system. Being more careful, being more stringent is not a sign of victory for the terrorists because they've forced a reaction. Actually, it's made their lives a little harder because one more possibility has been recognized and limited. This is a failure for them
We change our habits constantly - change is part of life. It's called adaptation, and if we can't do it we can't survive. So showing up a bit earlier for a flight, planning ahead as far as hydration goes? We'll get used to it; life will go on.
However, bringing things to a screeching halt because someone is 'behaving strangely' if that strange behavior is mostly having a long beard or carrying a Koran or something is a victory for terrorism.
I do think, though, that it is an extreme reaction from initial fear. Things will calm down again, we will become used to the new world just as we have done before, and once more we will, most of us anyway, be able to look at eachother as individuals of great variety rather than large masses of stereotyped genres. Maybe in stress it's easier to lump people into broad and general categories, to do a quick and harsh sort into 'safe' and 'not safe.' But it's not a practical thing, or a realistic thing.
Hopefully we all know that humans in general have a great capacity for violence, and a great capacity for empathy and acceptance, regardless of race or creed, arbitrary geographic boundary, religion, tribe, or division real or imagined. The destroyers are loud and horrible and impossible to ignore - but they are a tiny minority; a tiny minority in every culture.