Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

Note: Edited for Clarity. And also logic. Not that this makes the post any better, but it's less horrible than it was!

I might not have the most standard Halloween background. My childhood neighborhood, according to my mother (which makes this following statistic NON BIASED and therefore RELIABLE) gets about 400 trick or treaters on Halloween night. Everyone who just dropped by Target for a last minute bag of candy should take note of this because it seriously increases the number of mini-snickers bags you have to pick up. We get the usual heart-rendingly darling small fry, but also a huge number of surly, un-costumed enormous types who are a. far too large to be doing this and b. sometimes bringing their GRANDCHILDREN around with them and still holding out their pillowcase crammed with sugar.

This means I have an in-bred tendency to over-prepare for Halloween. If you add that up with a previous admitted crap-making tendency we're talking problem territory.

So yes, I admit the year we were in Virginia I made about a hundred felt bags (four designs: skull, bat, ghost and pumpkin. Personally, I rather liked the skull and the ghosts). That's a hundred little bags with hand-appliqued designs on them people. These were filled with sticky hands (don't ask), holiday bubble-blowers, and candy. We got... hmmm....maybe 10 kids ringing our bell? But our kids were thrilled since they got to enjoy the left-overs. We had sticky hands to play with for the next two years. Thinking of this episode makes me cringe from remembered craftiness. It's a very sad thing.

But the costumes that year were the best we ever did. Child 1 wanted to be a ghost, which sounds a bit dull, but we dressed it up with layer on layer of cheese cloth goulishness (my contribution) and then added those glow-stick chemical things underneath - the ones that you have to snap to create several hours of green eerie light (Kirk's brilliant concept, and may I say that was the coolest ghost ever?). Child 3 was a robot with glow-in-the-dark paint on its costume buttons (again, my contribution), and a tap light on its helmet (paint plus plastic plant pot - Kirk's brilliance again, darn him). Child 2 though was all me, and Child 2, it was a person being eaten by a shark (full marks to Child 2 for the best costume concept in history). This was, without doubt, the coolest costume we ever made. I sewed up the top half of a shark, with glow-in-the-dark teeth rimmed with gore (oh my gosh, this was an INCREDIBLE shark... You can tell how awesome the whole thing was by the unrestricted use of parentheses) and Child 2 wore its swim suit and a pair of goggles. I have to say, our neighbors were probably not nearly fabulous enough to appreciate our creative costuming. The only problem was this was our first post-Alaska trick or treating, and I was very fussed over the thought of poor little Child 2 freezing in its bathing suit. I worried and bothered, and reminded them several times that should Child 2 get cold it must be hustled straight home so I could cuddle it properly and give it hot chocolate. Naturally Child 2 nearly suffocated in its very impressive, but extremely well insulated shark, and had to flip the head over to dangle down its back just to get enough fresh air between houses.

In California the trick-or-treating was prime - lots of great houses, lots of friendly people, lots of insane types who handed out FULL SIZED candy bars thank you very much, and the good kind too! The problem was our house. We lived in a house that had a long driveway flanked by dark and looming hedges. The intrepid trick-or-treater would have to creeeeeaaak open the slightly rusty gate, thread its way past our attractive-but-threatening landscaping, around the corner, and then pound on our dark gee-we'd-love-to-carve-you-up-with-a-cut-rate-home-improvement-tool front door just to score a tiny bag of Skittles or something. Now, for the older kids this was just extra stuff, but the tiny types were too shy to even get to the gate. So Kirk and I just set ourselves at the end of the drive in our watching-soccer-games chairs with a bottle of red wine and a large bowl full of over-prepared treats. Sure, I was still begging small children to take several handfuls of foam dinosaur gliders and a slide whistle, but there were lots of other people around to join in the fun which made me community spirited and not faintly disturbing.

The year Kirk disappeared I set up my chair, poured a single glass of wine, and handed out handfuls of toys and candy. And I smiled at the older kids, and talked to the little ones about who they were, and why they chose that costume, and how Belle is the prettiest princess but Cinderella is nice too. I counted four dalmation puppies and seven Harry Potters. And my kids came and kept me company, and I did not cry.

This year I'm firmly esconced in the basement, refusing to partake of the greed-fest that is my neighborhood's trick-or-treat tradition. I can't enjoy watching three generations of people shake down the people around me for five dollars' worth of sugar-rush (oh dear. I think my prejudice is showing. Golly... I feel rotten) But I'm thinking of Kirk, laughing at our kid's fantastic costumes and the tiny little kids tottering around with the wonder of their first trick-or-treat, and that's enough holiday tradition for me. At least this year.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Kirk worried about C taking that job. He worried because C didn't have any real-world experience with any of that stuff - the military (well, a bit of family history, but that's not the same by any stretch), combat zones, the middle east - any of it. C was a bright guy, an extremely bright guy, and very capable, but this was not something to take lightly.

But C wouldn't be going to Iraq, it turned out. He was going to run things in Turkey, managing the operations there, while another guy would negotiate contracts, deliver orders, work with the locals etc. This guy was already over there in fact, but things were moving quickly and they needed someone to bring some order to everything.

Kirk talked to some of his contacts, talked seriously to C, and then said it was an amazing opportunity. There were risks, of course, but since C wouldn't be in the combat zone those risks were mostly related to dealing with a new company in a chaotic environment - and of course the potential gains were as great as the risks.

It helped that this company was not entirely new to the business. It was actually a spin off of a group that had done the same thing in Afghanistan. They already had the product, they had the procedures, they should have had everything they needed to make things work.

Under the circumstances, and knowing C and his tolerance for risk, Kirk said he should go ahead. I don't know the details of what he said to C - but I would imagine he told him honestly what he thought about the risks and the problems.

I also imagine he said quite truthfully that he, Kirk, would go in an instant.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Personality Traits

Broke is when the underwire thingy in your bra decides to make an unwanted appearance outside of it's happy little (padded, protective) underwire home, and you think - once this fact has made itself apparent by all the highly personal poking that's going on - gee, I'll bet I can fix that once I get home and thus not have to buy a new bra.

Lazy is when you neglect to do so.

Forgetful is when you go through this series of events more than three times, hence finding yourself in your office trying to slide the darn wire thingy back into its little wire home and looking like you're really unsuccessfully groping yourself.

Fortunately my office has a window that gazes out on a blank wall, and a nice solid door that can be shut firmly. Because I am broke, lazy, and forgetful.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Swear

Friend: So, I was looking at that post you made…

Me: Yup?

Friend: And I have a question.

Me: Yes…?

Friend: What in the world is double dog swear with cherries on?

Me: Did I say that?

Friend: You did.

Me: Really? Where?

Friend: Here.

Me: Hang on… oh.

Friend: Yes?

Me: Doesn’t everyone say that?

Friend: No.

Friend: No one says that. No one. Except you. Where did you learn it?

Me: Um…. I have a feeling it was spontaneous creation.

Friend: Athena springing from the head of Zeus?

Me: Well, yes! Exactly like that! Very godlike and impressive.

Friend: Right. So this is going to solve world hunger?

Me: Probably. Once it takes off. It just needs proper marketing.

Friend: The Double Dog Dare Brand?

Me: Tagline – Dare to Swear! Because only really really cool and edgy people will use it.

Friend: You’re thinking about t-shirt designs aren’t you?

Me: High fashion version: Swear With Flair!

Friend: You can stop now

Me: Mare… hare… hair to swear for the hirsute… lair… share…. fair…

Friend: Stop, just stop

Me: Wait! Wait! Once it takes off, then the charity angle kicks in and…

Friend: O...M...G…

Me: “Care to Swear?”

Friend: *pounding head*

Me: Do you see how clever that is? Care?? Swear??

Friend: You’re going to blog this, aren’t you?

Me: Of course not!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Shifting Sands

Kirk began to talk about Kosovo more and more - not about what happened during the war, but about what was going on now. We have such a short attention span sometimes - and of course there is always the next crisis looming to draw the world's eyes. Hardly anyone stops to wonder what a country does after the planes have stopped dropping bombs, after the troops have (mostly) gone home.

It's messy of course. There is all the physical damage from years of smaller scale destruction as well as the shorter, more efficient demolition efforts of the NATO forces. But there is also the problem of living with a community that has been violently divided, of finding places in the new world for the things said and done, for the people everyone has become.

All of that was on his mind, and we began to talk about it. He talked about the beauty of the Balkans, about the people he had met and seen, and about rebuilding. He had done so much that was destructive - important, yes, vital even, but destructive. Now, in the post 9-11 world, he urgently wanted to build instead.

So we began to look around, to put out feelers. He started to contact friends in Europe who might know someone contracting in the Balkans. But it was all very nebulous and undefined.

At the same time he and C were talking about starting a company together. They went through a few ideas, once meeting with a mentor of C's from Stanford. I was there that night, and remember the guy listening to their business model, then bluntly turning to C and saying 'well, it sounds like a viable model, I just don't see what this guy needs you for.'

Kirk knew he needed C though - Kirk had the expertise, C had the contacts and the business sense. So they talked and planned and mulled things over for several weeks, never really finalizing anything beyond the desire to work together, to do something that they cared about, to make something for themselves.

Eventually C got a job out of town and moved away, but he and Kirk kept very close contact, still trying to find just the right thing to do. C was restless and ambitious, and even in the new job he wasn't happy. Finally one day he gave Kirk a call. He'd been offered a job by a friend, he said, something risky but with a lot of possibilities. It was a very small company, American, but headquartered in Turkey. They built temporary buildings for the military and for reconstruction in post-war zones, and they were going into Iraq.

He wanted Kirk's advice.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Jiggy Factor

Kirk brought a friend home from work - a young single guy who had become a close friend. So we invited him for dinner one night.

He was an extremely bright guy, very charming, very confident. While we did last minute stuff in the kitchen and set up the dining room he outlined for me a theory of his - the Jiggy Theory.

Everyone has a jiggy factor he said seriously. In fact (he produced pen and paper) it can be charted, because if you plot it over time it forms a jiggy curve. There is one curve for women (draws in curve), and another for men (opposite curve). As I recall, jigginess was a complicated function involving age, intelligence, physical attractiveness, and material wealth. The important thing for real success in a relationship apparently, was to make sure your jiggy curve intersected with your partner's. The trouble is everyone is looking for a higher jiggy factor than their own place on the curve actually merits.

I looked at him firmly and pointed out that the female jiggy curve had a distinctly depressing downward slope to it, while the male curve went up and up. And where, I asked would he place me on said curve?

At that moment the fresh shrimp came out of the steamer, the homebaked bread was sitting, warm and fragrant, waiting to be sliced, and a large corn and bean salad was placed on the table. He looked at these things, then looked back at me and plotted a large black dot very firmly quite high on the jiggy curve.

Very wise, C, I said, and passed his plate.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Tried to think of a clever and original way of saying 'I'm back!' but... well, that's already obvious isn't it?

Also obvious is that The Story is nearing the end... or the middle... and it's sort of looming out there. I can feel it when I try and write things and the words get very strained and stilted. But I'll do my best, bear with me, we're nearly there.


I don't much like sea gulls. They're quite nice from a distance I suppose - particularly in flight or when the sunset catches them in just the right light. But up close they're bold, usually fairly grubby, and very, very rude. They're base survivors are gulls - if there's food to be gotten they'll find it, and no niceties about please and thank you. I know for some people they really symbolize the ocean, but to me it's more the parking-lot dumpster of the beach-side Taco Bell.

But there is a little shore bird I absolutely love. We saw them first in Oregon. They're quite small, little white things with brown markings and terribly fragile little legs - extremely pretty.

They make their living right at the boundary between water and land. As each wave comes in they dash frantically up the sand ahead of the foam, and then turn and chase just as hard after it when it rushes out again. In the tiny interval in-between they dip their beaks down and rummage busily for whatever tasty scrap they can find. I have no idea what they look for - tiny crabs maybe, or little shell fish. It's the constant motion of their little legs as they race back and forth with every wave that I like so much.

Maybe that's where we were - too used to constant motion, used to the rush and the scrabble of chaos. But it wasn't only that.

There were other people at Kirk's job who were unhappy. It was the end of the dot com era. The culture of extreme reward for extreme effort was over - at least half of it was. There had been... let me see now... three major lay-offs while Kirk was there, and that left everyone feeling edgy and uncertain. You were aware that people watched to see when you came in and when you left - aware that looking busy and productive was more important than anything, even than actually being productive. It wasn't a place that inspired great loyalty because during the boom time it didn't have to. Now people worked out of fear rather than passion or belief.

Most of our friends were at least thinking about finding other work - it was stupid not to really given the circumstances. So Kirk wasn't alone. He was just alone in looking for work in the Balkans.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hiatus (possibly) and A Water Tale

Be duly warned that for the next week I might possibly have only sketchy internet access and therefore there could maybe be a bit of a lull here. How's that for conditional grammar?

Meanwhile I am off to contemplate the large lake that has appeared across the street. It started as one neatly excised hole which was tutted over by a crew of workmen for a day or so, then filled in and left. Except bright and observnt neighbor noticed that next to the repaired hole the street was developing a large bulge, which tarmac doesn't normally do, even here. So crew of workmen returned and excised a much larger but still neat hole next to the original. They worked on that one for a couple of days, blocking anywhere from one to four driveways (mine included) and showing a frightening lack of expertise with their various large pieces of equipment. Then they filled in the hole and tamped the dirt down VERY firmly. That was yesterday. Said observant neighbor did mention he thought there was still a leak... but was told quite sternly that it was fixed.

So yesterday evening we all went out to admire the bubble fountain in the road. The six by eight foot hole (or larger? I don't do estimates well, particularly from memory) was filled to the brim and a nice little brook was running down the gutter. Since this is a desert, the sight of water just running away to the drain without cleaning anything, refreshing anything, or watering anything is intensely irritating. Bright observant neighbor declined to call the city though, apparently he's had enough of the city and they've probably had enough of him.

I've made the suggestion that we go with what works and turn it into a neighborhood swimming hole. It's a bit small for a pool, but at a pinch we could stack all the local kids inside and get them thoroughly wet. It's a pity it's not the season. My father suggests a wetland - showing he's less selfish and more conservation minded than I. I figure within a week we could have a couple of ducks and probably a turtle or two. If we play our cards right we might attract some endangered silvery minnows, and then we could apply for grant money and get ourselves declared protected.

In fact... I wonder what the procedure is for having oneself listed as a species? I'm pretty sure I'm threatened (I know my kids are - I do it myself) and I'm positive my habitat needs restoring. I think I'll go write a letter to my local representative. She's running for reelection - she needs to keep an eye on the vital swing votes of special interest species like me.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Dueling Artistes

Hari Krishna guy has a rival! He has been ousted from his spot beneath the 'art' on the way to work. The poor man has set himself up temporarily 20 yards away, and upped the volume. I'm not sure if Hari Krishnas are allowed resentment, but if so he's absolutely seething with it.

Meanwhile beneath the 'art' is an enthusiastic but unfortunately unwashed type who bangs away on his guitar and sings what must be his own compositions. Friday's song was a soulful tune about the evils of modern travel.

'Mr. Customs maaaaaaaan
Doooooon't you cheeeeck mah bags'

And I caught something about a steely jet in the blue, blue, skaaaaaaaah.

Today his strumming was too violent to understand his lyrics - a great shame I think. Still, it made for an interesting walk as I went from the (volume increased) heartfelt and gentle 'krishna krishnaaaaaaaa' to THUMP strum strum strum THUMP THUMP. I'm not sure if the sound wars will escalate any further. I sort of hope they come to an armed truce and just settle down together, because I've become fond of Krishna guy, and Unwashed Man has a dog of infinite charm and incredible patience.

Maybe they could be a beautiful example of musical sectarianism living in...

... sorry about this ...



I started to wonder if we were chronically nomadic - if we had moved so often that mentally we would always be looking ahead to the next place.

Before California we had never in our 12 year marriage spent Christmas in the same house two years in a row. The kids were slightly proud of this statistic and repeated it to their friends. By Christmas 2001 we all felt as though we had accomplished something - two Christmases, one house... just barely.

But we talked about moving all the time. Partly it was a poor mental framework that started when we took the job in California. We knew we weren't going to get back to Alaska (AKA The Promised Land, or if Kirk were feeling Norse, Valhalla), but West Coast was mandatory, and the farther north the better. Moss Beach was barely within our tolerance zone and we moved with that in mind. Sure it was beautiful, sure the people were great, but it wasn't perfect it wasn't ideal, it wasn't home.

Looking at it now I think the problem wasn't geographic at all. Kirk was unhappy with his work - he was underused and unchallenged, and deeply disatisfied. He had felt he had nothing left to prove after the Air Force - he said as much to me - but post 9-11 I think somewhere was the feeling that he did have something left to give.

But all of that was so tenuous that the only thing we knew was something wasn't right with where we were.

So we talked about moving, all the time putting down deeper and firmer roots without realizing it. Maybe that's the problem with being a nomad - when you do find home, you don't recognize it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Puzzle Box

When I was little there were wonderful things in our livingroom. On a marble-topped table there was a small brass plate filled with arrowheads and odd bits of rock. My father said the strange, smooth ones were dinosaur gizzard stones, and when I held them I could feel the odd oiliness that he said was how you knew what they were.

In a niche by the archway were a series of shelves that held a whole variety of knicknacks. There was a carved wooden bear who had a large salmon slung over his back. There was a New Zealand Tiki with mother-of-pearl eyes and an enigmatic grin. There was a glass pig that once belonged to my grandmother. She had been given the nickname 'Piglet' I think, and people kept giving her pigs. In my memory she didn't actually like the pigs all that much, but she displayed them all the same.

And there was the puzzle box.

It was small, and one top corner had a gap where the maker had misjudged the cut of the wood. Green parquetry decorated the sides, and filled the top panel except for a diamond that held two goggle-eyed scotty dogs. When you picked it up there was a loud rattle, and you could feel several little hard objects sliding around. But the top was firmly glued down, and there were no hinges.

I don't remember anyone showing me how to open it - I think I must have just poked around enough to figure it out. It's not a terribly puzzling puzzle box. The front panel is a drawer, and if you push at it you can move it backwards against a spring. On the left hand side a piece of the parquetry slides back just enough to show a little wooden trigger; press that down and the drawer springs open.

And inside there is a treasure.

My mother got utterly fed up one day with endlessly dusting all the little things (along with the miles of bookshelves) and bundled them all up and put them away. But the other day we opened up a drawer at the bottom of a glass fronted bookcase and there they all were - the gizzard stones, the arrowheads, and dozens of other things I had forgotten about. There's a peculiar familirity to things you knew as a child, something that gives importance and stature to even trivial little bits and pieces. Why did we still have a small matchbox carefully covered in blue diamond patterned tissue paper? Neither of us knew, but it still went back into the drawer with the other things.

Except the puzzle box. My mother gave that to me, and it's sitting on my desk now. The spring is still strong, and when I press down the trigger the drawer almost leaps out, shooting as far as the stops will let it.

There are six crystals inside - a little scratched now from rattling against eachother all these years. I didn't see the scratches when I was little, didn't see the dirt that still crusts two of them. I saw six diamonds hidden in a magic box.

Still, it's good to know the treasure is still there, if I can remember how to find it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

No, Honestly, We Really Do Rock Birthday Parties

I intended to go on with The Story at this point, but yesterday's post made me start thinking about other birthday parties and... well, in justification I'm going to say that telling this is an important part of telling about Kirk.

Two of our children are female, which since Kirk spent his adolescence in a male-only household, did cause a bit of confusion for him. One of the girls, for example, was exceptionally pretty-princessy when very small. She wanted to dress in fluffy, twirly things at all times. Her favorite movie was Mary Poppins, and she would skip exultantly through the house singing 'Yet's go Fyie a Kite!' at the top of her piercing little voice. She slept at night with her hands classically tucked beneath one cheek, and woke up in the morning with a stretch, and a Cindy-Loo-Who type girly little sigh (Mmmmmm-aaaaah!). She was obsessed with her own reflection ('Oh! I have tears! I go see....') to the point where we honestly considered strictly limiting her mirror time. At one point Kirk turned to me with confusion and said, quite seriously, 'I think there's something wrong - look at her!' pointing to our prancing, dancing, ruffly pink child. 'She's not broken, Kirk, she's a girl.'

The latter girl birthdays were, therefore, something of a trial to him. He loved parties, loved having the kids over and getting into the fun, but.... ew... He listened patiently, if a little glumly, while I planned one: 'And then we'll have a maze and the girls will have to rescue these little unicorns from the center of the maze...' then brightened up - 'well, what if there's a dragon? And they have to kill it or something? We could do spears maybe...' Even worse was the teenager one with really horrible music, and truth-or-dare make overs. He listened to those plans and then just announced that his only role in all of this would be to mock them all. And he did.

But in Alaska the male child did have a birthday that let Kirk really shine. It was pirate themed. We started with a treasure hunt (great way to deal with the piece-meal arrival of guests btw) and the handful of small boys ransacked the garden looking for their loot - in this case a make-yourself-a-pirate kit with eye patch, cutlass, and cut out felt to glue up into a nice pirate hat.

Then Kirk lined them up and gave them pirate lessons.

'Right! Backs straight! Let's see your sneeeeeer.'

Five-year-old grimaces were inspected.

'Oh come on now, that wouldn't frighten a rowboat full of grandmothers! Think scary men, think terrifying, what do you look like when your mom says you have to kiss your sister? That's it!'

Then he taught them a piratical vocabulary (edited for age of course) including a classic 'AAARRRRRRGGGHHHHH' and a growled 'Scurvey Scallawag!'

At the end of the day one blond pirate came solemnly up to Kirk. 'Mister [Child]? I don't want to be a piwate.'

Kirk smiled down at him, 'that's okay, it was pretty fun just to be one for an afternoon though, wasn't it?'

'Well.... I guess. But I don't want to be a piwate anymore.'

'What do you want to be?'

'I want to be what you are. I want to be a King Piwate!' and he hugged Kirk around the knees, stabbed him with his cutlass, and ran home.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

How We Totally Rock Birthday Parties

The birthday person in question was Child 2, who, on being asked, said it wanted an 'Alaska' birthday party. When it comes to things like this there is generally a strict division of labor. I, as a rule, come up with the design for invitations, with the party favors, and most of the games. Kirk would tweak the games, adding refinements that made them either more dangerous or more difficult - usually both. I then spend two months hand crafting game supplies, and the aformentioned favors and invitations. That's because I'm insane. Kirk runs everything else.

So for the Alaska party we decided to hold the thing outdoors at a local park - nice flat area that used to be a quarry. Luckily this was the slightly less rainy season (note, Moss Beach has two seasons - slightly less rainy, and constantly rainy) so while we had the emergency contingency plan that involved more insanity and our living room we weren't called upon to make the sacrifice. It meant that decorations could be minimal, and all we had to do was pack all the gear from the parking area to the party site.

On the day itself, we met the party-goers down by the car, and Kirk began hiking them up the trail. He told them most of his favorite bear jokes (yes, the one with the poop and the bear bells was a big hit) and had the whole crew ready to prove themselves real Alaskans by the time they arrived.

First, he said, they had to provide themselves with shelter. Theoretically this should have taken ten minutes since it just meant pitching a couple of very simple tents. But this was a whole herd of pre-teens so with intense concentration and a certain amount of lively discussion (and adult interference) they managed to get both tents up and nearly stable in a mere half hour.

They foraged for food as well - berry shaped candies hung in green paper cones around the site (each child assigned its own ribbon color so we didn't break out into sugar-induced violence or anything).

Next up was fishing. I'd made some bright foam fish (and an octopus or two because I like octopi, and I was bored with fish and besides you never know) and fixed them with magnets. Kirk had rigged very long fishing poles with string and more magnets and the kids had to 'hook' themselves a fish while Child 3 made things more interesting by agitating the 'water' and generally making a nuisance of itself.

Meanwhile, and this is the bit I thought was the most genius, Child 1 was established as the proprietor of the local general store, who would buy the fish with gold (spray painted rocks - cheap and amazingly effective). The party goers could then use their gold to buy favors of their choice - 'moose poop' (those little round versions of candy bars, like Butterfinger B-B's and things), small toys, little journals and other things. Child 1 added its own refinement by randomly changing its prices. A fish that brought in two large nuggets one round would barely get a small bit of gravel the next - Child 1 claimed a glut on the market, it wasn't its fault it said.

It took them ages to tire of fishing out the fish, selling them off, flinging them back in and starting all over again. The whole time Kirk was right in the middle, egging on Child 1, telling outrageous fish tales - somehow managing to keep the fun going without tipping things over into chaos.

Finally, thoroughly stocked with moose-poop, the whole crew vanished into the tents. Except for the tell-tale wobbling and the explosive whispers the camp site seemed deserted. Kirk joined me on the picnic-table bench and stretched his legs out.

'Well, I think that went pretty well,' he said, in satisfaction. 'Not one meltdown the whole afternoon.'

'Which do you think was easier - entertaining those kids for three hours or briefing a roomful of generals?'

He thought for a moment. 'Well like I said, not one meltdown the whole afternoon, so I'd have to choose the kids every time.' He paused, admiring his hiking boots. 'But they both like my bear poop story!'

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Keeping Busy - The Telephone

I've mentioned that Kirk found ways to keep himself entertained at his new job. He had an accomplice in this - they had one of those synergistic relationships where the whole is entirely greater than the sum of its parts. When you think about the mayhem that only one part was capable of, this is a frightening thing.

A favorite pastime was creating phone messages. They started fairly small and innocuous, but when a couple of colleagues went out of town for several days both of them branched out into real genius. Kirk's series of recordings is legend. I have had four people stop me (two of them I didn't know) and act out various parts. Unfortunately it is completely impossible to translate to text - honestly, I'm very sorry about this. The best I can say is that 'Birthday Baba Ganouj' has become a household catch phrase, and I have been given several boxes of Baba Ganouj mix on the strength of the whole thing.

However the friend's effort was pretty good too. The following messages (as near as I can reconstruct) were left on K's phone while she was away for a week:

The first day away: 'Miz X? This is Wayne from Triple A Cold Storage. We've got a shipment for you, says came in two, three weeks ago but my guys say it's been sittin' here a while. Anyway if you could call us back, arrange tah pick this thing up I'd sure appreciate it.'

Day three: 'Miz X? This is Wayne from Triple A Cold Storage. That shipment of yours - by policy we gotta open this thing up, see what's in here if we don't hear from you. Give us a call by the end of the day ma'am.'

Day four: 'Miz X? This here is Wayne from Triple A Cold Storage. We're gonna whoah! Whoah Bruce you open that thing up? My god... damn man that's... Miz X? We [cough, oh MAN] we got your... um... your meat delivery here and it's [cough, cough] oh, man. Okay, we're gonna hafta...'

Return day, knowing she was coming straight to work: 'Miz X? Triple A Cold Storage. We found your home address here on the... on the... on the um package... paperwork, so we're just gonna [no man! You put that in triple bags I'm tellin' you, and you take that truck right out and hose it down after or we're gonna be smellin' like that for weeks], we're gonna just deliver this for you, no charge.'


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Parenting Skillage

Child 2 reads. No, Child 2 inhales books, breathes books, is never happy unless surrounded by piles and mounds of books. It taught itself to read at the age of 3 (well, 3 and 8 months) because Child 1 learned to read that day and there was no reason not to. Since then, well it's been all about the books. If there were a 12 step program for literature abuse, Child 2 would be in it.

'Hi, I'm Child,' it would say, 'and I'm a compulsive reader.'

I'm not saying this to hint smugly at relative brain power or anything - I'm confessing to a problem. In the past Child 2 has chosen reading over sleeping, eating, hygiene, and (it was VERY young) certain vital functions of a delicate nature. It has (recently too) been found in the morning with not one, but four or more large bulky books distributed in its bedclothes - not just soft cover either, but nasty, pointy edged hard bound monsters, sometimes beneath its tender young body. Child 2 literally rolls in books.

There is, I admit, a certain amount of family history here. My mother used to tell with enormous satisfaction about the time Aunt 1 and Aunt 2 were sprinting for the one bathroom in the house. Aunt 1 won the race, but Aunt 2 shouted triumphantly 'but I have my BOOK!' and Aunt 1 let her go first. That is a book sickness right there, the whole darn thing.

So Kirk and I were hardly suprised when Mr. D pulled us over to look at Child 2's desk during parent-teacher conferences. He had saved it for us, so we could wonder along with him. There were the expected crumpled papers, pens, crayons, scissors and possible fossil evidence of lunches long departed, but in addition there were 13 books. THIRTEEN books. In a small, 4th grade desk. Kirk said the compression in that thing was so significant we were probably lucky to have escaped spontaneous combustion. We marveled together at this evidence that physics knows nothing when faced with a book-obsessed child.

Mr. D told us gently that while Child 2 was great fun in the classroom the tendency of its desk to discharge drifts of detritus onto the floor was slightly disruptive. Right, we said, leave it to us. We'll sort this out.

Long talk with Child 2 who agreed that maybe things were slightly out of control. It would choose a book, you see, for reading, and then read it and then carefully put it away... in its desk... and then choose another... sort of the compost approach to literacy. But it just got so interested in the books...

Not to worry, Kirk said, the problem is you have too many books to choose from. We can see that. We'll make it easy on you. For the next two weeks, you will read only the books of our choosing. You'll take one with you to school, and read the other here at home. And because you read rather quickly, we'll make sure they'll last you the entire time.

And he presented the poor child with two massive tomes. At school it would be delighting in a dense and thorougly researched life of Saladin. At home it would learn what a fairly dusty Oxford Don thought about Roman Britain.

If the desk stayed clean for two weeks, the reading ban was lifted. If not...

Two weeks later Mr. D showed us a pristine and shining desk. A slightly grim Child 2 listened as we joked about how effective the treatment had been.

'But I'll bet you learned a lot,' I said. 'Saladin was an important guy, one of the most influential characters of his time.'

'Well,' it said viciously, 'I know how he died!'

Every day it had been flipping to the same page and reading with satisfaction about how the great Saladin had met his end.

To this day it can quote every word.

Monday, October 09, 2006

3 Years

Three years today.

Someone called me last year to offer their condolences, to tell me they were thinking of us. And I told them that I don't pay a lot of attention to anniversaries and things. I miss him today, but I missed him yesterday. It was hard today, but it will be hard tomorrow.

So today it's three years, and tomorrow it will be three years and a day... and the day after...

And while that's true, today was a sad day, a hard day. Partly because for no real reason several things needed to get done - Social Security still isn't resolved; there's a claim we filed ages ago with the labor department which will probably never come to anything but which needs to be pursued anyway - so the bureaucratic tedium of the situation was all over today. Very tiring, very wearing, very... well, very sad. Particularly as after getting everything organized and getting ready to call and write and do what I had to do (because it takes a bit of mental courage each time. Shouldn't this be getting easier?) I realized it's Columbus day and nothing is open. Just like three years ago.

Three years ago I was trying to contact representatives, senators, anyone at all. I called all morning, frantic, and didn't realize for hours that no one was going to answer because all the offices were closed.

So yes, today is hard. Sometimes the difficulties of things feel particularly heavy, and today is one of those days.

Maybe tomorrow will be better.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


It's balloon fiesta time. The streets are filled with tourists and with chase teams - both a bit dangerous on the road since their eyes are glued to the skies.

There are fiesta lovers here, people who go every year, who collect pins to display on hats they would never otherwise consider wearing. We have known people who own ballons, people who volunteer for chase teams, and even for a while a brave man who striped his head in black and white and helped deal with organizing launches.

I am not one of those people. I don't much like huge crowds, and it seems insane to get up ungodly early, struggle with traffic and parking and then pay a ridiculous amount for the privilege of standing around in a cold field watching large bags of silk slowly fill with air.

A friend of Child 2 took us all up once for a birthday treat - not for the enormous Fiesta, just for a smaller gathering of 30 or so, but at least I can say I've done it. Makes me feel slightly less of an outsider for never once having gone to the real thing.

It's not like I feel I've missed out on anything. The balloons can be seen from all over the city - clustering at first in their hundreds, then thinning out and spreading across the sky as they climb to catch different gusts of wind.

Yellow leaves, the smell of roasting green chiles, and the loud whoosh of a heater overhead as someone looks for an open field to land. It must be fall in New Mexico.

Friday, October 06, 2006


It would be easy at this point to say - and then nothing much happened. Two years, and I've been trying to think of the best way to sum it up. I could talk about the burst of the dot com bubble, and track the time by the number of lay-offs Kirk survived at his company. I could tell more mountain bike stories, riding 20 miles or more down the coast with Kirk shouting 'fall left!' over his shoulder as we rode along the steep cliffs.

But the thing that comes to my mind is soccer, yes cliche and all.

Kirk was not a man of casual interests. If he liked something, if he wanted to do it, it became a passion. In our marriage this had included photography, camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, archery and now soccer. Blame children 2 and 3 - it's all their fault.

Soccer hadn't been a big deal in Alaska. I think there is an AYSO up there somewhere, but with only one season suitable for outdoor games, and that taken up utterly with the aforementioned camping, hiking fishing etc, it never even crossed our lives. Virginia was entirely devoted to mountain biking with hardly time for the odd trip into DC. If I thought about soccer at all I think I would have announced that I couldn't be a soccer mom, I didn't have a minivan.

But for some reason one day as we drove up Highway 1 we both noticed a small sign announcing sign ups for 'Little Kickers' (which gave me a vague impression of small but potent drinks for some reason) and Kirk decided to look into it. Maybe it was part of trying to do the standard civilian thing? At any rate at the end of the day children 2 and 3 had 'uniform' t-shirts in green and yellow and were assigned to their new teams.

Of course it couldn't stay that simple. In the fall all three kids were on teams, the male child sporting green hair to match its jersey (and to help its parents pick it out among the identical small boys on the field). The next season the male was on two teams (and did, for a weekend, have half its head green, half red) just to make things more interesting. Finally all three kids and Kirk took ref classes and became certified (and all four of them had stripey ref jerseys as well), children 2 and 3 were playing on teams, and Kirk was coaching. Me, I learned what offside meant, could throw around phrases like 'give and go' and 'off side trap,' and was reasonably confident about what position went where. I also pointed out to my manic family that anyone volunteering to take a five hour class starting at 8 am on a Saturday for the simple joy of standing in a herd of small children wearing cleats and kicking like maniacs was... well I love my family and I was in a strong minority so we'll say was dedicated beyond my own capacity.

The boy demonstrated he was his father's child by never going a game without at least one major catastrophe. At one point, having been seriously whalloped in the face by the ball, he announced defiantly if stuffily to the ref that, 'I don't need my face to play soccer!' In another game his coach asked him to stop throwing his body in the path of the charging opposite team: 'but it's my strategy!' But our visiting friend's favorite moment was when the boy, on the far side of one field, crashed violently to the ground (under several other people) and from far, far away came the clear tones of his loving sister: 'Man up, [Child]!'

We drilled and played together as a family, we watched English Premier League (Child 3 and Kirk were Arsenal fans in particular - Thierry Henri was a favorite) and European soccer (Real Madrid of course), and the pungent, musty smell of shin guards became a constant in the car.

Kirk loved it. In particular he loved coaching, and the boys loved him.

And those people, the soccer families, became wonderful friends. Amazing people - generous, loving, and unquestioningly supportive. I have good reason to know. In the military there's always a community waiting for you wherever you go. Geography changes, but the culture is the same. In California, it was all those people we stood on the sidelines and shouted with, people who were willing to be known as J's mom, and R's dad, people who like us cheered as our kids hurdled gopher holes and sploshed through mud puddles every Saturday, cheered whether we won (sometimes) or lost (frequently).

And we still miss them. So to all of you guys, we're trying to get back out there, we hope to see you soon, and we think about you all the time.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Mean Old Nasty Nature

Behind the children's school there are trails that snake through the hills. It's very unlike single track in Virginia, where the technical challenge comes from the tricky turns, the tight clearances or the sharp drops. Here there aren't tall trees or nifty series of drops and rises, but long grinding climbs and stretches of bumpy dried out mud where horses, joggers, dogs and bikes have all left their mark during the rainy season. But if you wind back far enough you come to some brushy bits, and every few yards or so (with luck) there will be a garter snake out trying to catch the elusive sun.

We spent a long afternoon biking around, leaping off and trekking through the undergrowth and generally getting grimy and hot but having a lovely time.

I think it was the next day that I discovered the grim practical joke California pulls on the unwary - poison oak. I had it. And good. Both arms, my neck, belly, legs... and it was getting worse by the moment. I had gotten this once before - in Monterey when we were out doing archery. That time it was on my face, and it was during the trip to the emergency room that I discovered I was pregnant so they couldn't give me any medication for it. This time I was determined to have whatever drugs they had, extra strong, and worry about side effects some other time.

They prescribed something lethal - steroids I think - probably talked to Kirk about topical treatments, and then announced calmly that even with the meds I was looking at a good week to recover. A week.

At this point readers are probably divided into two camps - those with experience of poison oak (or its slightly less horrific cousin poison ivy), and those without. So you're either writhing in sympathetic agony at the moment or you simply have no idea. Yes, as I told a friend at the time, it's just an itch. But it's an itch so intense it goes beyond pain into some strange uber-sensory dimension. This is the Mother Of All Sensations. It is indescribable.

I don't really remember much of the rest of that week. There are at least three days that I completely missed because every moment (you don't sleep with poison oak) was consumed with Itch. Kirk called frantically around the neighborhood, around work, asking for advise, searching the internet. Finally a friend of a friend gave him a phone number for a botanist who knew someone. There was a woman in El Grenada who made a mixture that he swore by. He would give up his personal stash seeing it was an emergency, but Kirk really should go see this woman. It all sounded a bit dodgy by this time, but he could have been suggesting I go downtown San Francisco to buy crack to rub into the open blisters by this point and I would eagerly have done it.

Kirk came back with a mentholly brown powder which he mixed up into a sludge to smear over my oak spots and... sweet relief. For maybe ten minutes. Then it started to dry up and flake away. Still, ten minutes was pretty darn good, so for the next several days I spent all my time on the couch in very little other than Kirk's enormous bathrobe, busily painting myself with mud and then (because it's impossible to not do it) picking off the mud flakes as they cracked and pulled away. Food, sleep, kids - I don't remember any of that. I was nothing but the mud. It's entirely possible that if Kirk had allowed my mud supply to run out I would have garotted him right there and then.

It was horrible, miserable, nasty and nearly put me off California for good. At the end of it all, when I could finally shower without getting dizzy from the sensory overload, I vaccuumed up the endless flakes of minty mud and decontaminated the couch.

Why, I asked Kirk, had it just been me? Everyone else had tramped through the bushes. We had all been practically rolling around in there chasing the snakes.

Turns out Child 3 had a small spot on one leg which, because the little insect wouldn't stop scratching it, had been pretty nasty for several days. And Kirk?

Oh, he said vaguely, looking at a small pink smudge on one arm. I think I got some, but I don't think it does anything to me. I didn't even notice it for a few days until one of the kids pointed it out. Funny, isn't it?

Oh yeah. Funny.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What Now

I don't remember a moment when the choice was absolutely made - when Kirk said definitively that he would not go back to intelligence. Maybe he wasn't comfortable with the decision; maybe he didn't want it to be a decision but a postponed possibility. But somewhere along the line we stopped talking about it as a viable option. Somewhere it just faded into the background, and we took up what we had been doing before 9/11 - learning to live in a civilian world.

There was one small thing he did though. One of the children came home talking about a friend at school whose parents were not letting her trick-or-treat that year. They felt it was too dangerous, that the children might somehow be targeted. This child (Child 2) chose some of its own candy haul, and we augmented with some leftover treats and toys, and it put together a goodie bag for the little girl. But Kirk worried about this irrational fear that was so much in the air at the time. Most particularly he worried about the kids and how the adult terror was being transferred to their children.

So Kirk contacted Child 2's teacher* and suggested he come in and give a short presentation about terrorism and the threat the US was facing. He wanted to give the kids a little perspective about this strange world - to put things in context for them.

He started by telling them a little about the real intelligence world - not the one seen in movies or on television. He told them about a CIA agent who gave a briefing once in Virginia, an overweight, over-blown, overly pretentious type. 'I,' he had said dramatically, rubbing his hands down his round little front, 'am a spy.' The kids marched up to eachother with great delight over the next several weeks puffing out their bellies and declaring themselves spies.

Then Kirk talked about why the terrorists were doing what they were doing. He talked a little about the real Islam, the Islam that the majority practices, and he talked about the differences. He did his best to give the children information, believing that if they understood they would not be afraid.

Then he gave them just a little perspective. There was, he said, very little chance any of them would ever be injured by a terrorist attack. That unreal charicature - turban wearing, bearded, extreme - would almost certainly never come anywhere near them. Far more Americans would be injured this year by an urban terrorist stalking the streets each evening. Then he flashed a picture up of this horror:

And the children laughed, and they asked questions, and the fear was, for one small group at least, punctured and reduced to something they could cope with.

*This teacher deserves a post of his own. Child 2 and Child 3 both got him and he was terrific. Mr. D, if you're out there anywhere, I'd like you to know you're something of a legend in our family and we're doing our best to spread the myth. Hope you're still teaching - and of course still surfing.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


[Note - sorry, I was out of town for a few days and my internet connection went inconveniently missing! Produced an utterly unintentional (but hopefully tantalising) break]

When Kirk worked counter-terrorism he was a captain - a quite low ranked officer. Further, he was an Air Force captain at a navy unit, and worse he was working in Virginia where you can't spit without hitting a senior officer. So he had access to information that only a handful of people even knew existed, and was given enormous responsibility, but actually had very little real clout. Rank matters, and it matters to civilians as well as military.

So if Kirk had stayed in, and if he had managed to piece together what was going to happen on 9/11, there's a chance that even then no one would have listened.

But then... they did listen over Y2K. And if he had been there for those few months, already thinking along the lines of a hijacking, maybe he could have made the connections and seen the signs that could have stopped it.


Kirk wasn't someone to spend endless time agonizing about the if's of life, but he also wasn't able to forget it. He did regret, he did wonder, and he did feel terrible grief and pain, and yes anger over what happened. But his response was to try and find something to do now. What happened can't be changed, and all the guilt in the world won't reset things. So figure out what needs to happen next.

And that was the question. He was approached about going back - not into the military, but as a civilian. There were a couple of offers, and he did seriously think about it. It would mean uprooting again, returning to the East Coast and taking the kids out of school yet again. And it would mean accepting the counter-terrorism world as his world for the rest of his career; there would be no going back from this one.

It was a long, and drawn out decision. We talked endlessly, he called friends for advice, talked to people still in the world, tried to get a feel for what was happening. There was chaos of course. This hit the intel world hard, and people were still trying to sort out the aftermath. Much of it sounded good though - many of the people who were most blind, most hidebound and obstructionist were gone. Change was happening, change that had been needed for years. What sort of useful role Kirk could play, however, wasn't clear. In the end he was afraid that once again he would be drawn into a dark and horrible world and still be unable to make a difference.

And then a chance came up to play a small part right where he was. His company made software that could, with a little tweaking, be incredibly useful if applied to intel work. Homeland security was a brand new phrase, but it was obvious that some major needs were recognized, and Kirk's company could fill some of them. They quickly set up a unit to make a pitch for a government contract, and Kirk was unofficially approached to advise these guys on the marketing plan they had in mind - PowerPoint, naturally.

He came home late the day they showed him their presentation.


He looked at me.

'I don't think they liked what I had to say.'

'Why not?'

'Because I told them the truth.'

'Which was...'

'They gave a ten minute presentation, with a couple of scenarios laid out demonstrating how the product could be used.'


'What wasn't laughable, was illegal.'

'Ah. And you said this?'


'So I suppose they don't want you on their team.'

'Not really. Then I told them that they missed the main point.'


'The military is there to break things and kill people. I don't think they see themselves in that sort of business.'

'But they still want to sell to the government?'

'Oh yeah. They just want it to be giving the rest of the world a stern lecture and sending everyone home with a cookie. That and doing a whole lot of things that are completely unconstitutional'

The company hired an outside consultant for a huge fee. They spent several months on their pitch, and devoted a group of highly paid people to put the whole thing together. The basic structure and message, however didn't change.

They did not get the contract.