Caught it…

The rumble of wheels on gravel
I prick my ears and take position
For years I've tried diligently but failed
Today is the day -- I will catch it today
I launch with all the power in me
It draws near and I lengthen my stride 
Barking fiercely and closing the gap
A mouthful of rubber -- thrill of success
Then searing pain and darkness close in
As I ask myself why I wanted this.

 

It’s got to be common

It’s pretty clear to me at an academic level that many of the challenges I deal with on a regular basis are near universal.  Challenges with teenagers, dissatisfaction with work, being stuck for a season in the spiritual doldrums, health challenges, personal weaknesses, demands on my time that far exceed the time available, profound cognitive dissonance between what I want and the world I am stuck with, and many other challenges are surely common.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t generally make it feel any less lonely, any less troublesome, any less painful, or any less oppressive.   Failure, though common to everyone, is experienced on an individual basis.  The fact that failure is common doesn’t really make me feel any better about failing.  Sometimes I wish I cared less and were better at shaking it off.

Why do I write?

A little while ago somebody asked me what motivates me to write.  I’ve thought about that off and on for a long time, so you’d think I’d have a pretty solid answer by now.  I don’t.  At least, not really.  It’s a case where the real answer is somewhat amorphous and changes shape from time to time depending on the circumstances. When I think I have a relatively complete answer, something around me or in me shifts just enough to alter the answer in substantive ways, and I am left with a hole that hasn’t been filled in yet.  That said, there are some motivations that I consider enduring.  They have remained consistent and applicable throughout my memory, and I expect them to remain so indefinitely.

First, and fundamentally, I write to please myself.  This sounds to me quite selfish, but I believe there is probably an element of selfishness at the bottom of almost everything we do of our own free choice.  At the end of the day, I find writing generally rewarding as I pull together thoughts and memories to fashion them into something that I hope is coherent and interesting.  Telling a story or writing a poem is a lot like building a project where I have a design in mind, select and collect the pieces, shape and fit them together in a manner unique to my intent, and assemble something that I find useful or pleasing as the end result.  I get great pleasure in stepping back at the end of a project and seeing a result that I can be somewhat proud of.   Whether it’s a physical structure, electronics project, or string of words on a screen or paper, I like to see a finished result that reflects the care and effort I put into it.  It’s satisfying in a way that my daily employment isn’t.

Another factor that motivates me when I write is the ability it affords me to organize, analyze, and assess complex issues.  I have a wide range of ideas and ideals that are shaped by a vast array of life experiences, but the linkage between those experiences and the beliefs and ideas is often buried and uncertain.  When I sit down to write about those kinds of ideas it give me the opportunity to analyze my beliefs and identify many of the underlying factors that they are founded on.  When I write, I can more clearly identify the linkages between and lineage of ideas, and can take the time to choose how to show the connections and deeper aspects.  I don’t, however, generally write about fundamentally deep ideas and make them widely available.  Those writings are more often than not reserved for me alone.

There are times that I write because I can be more precise about a message I mean to communicate.  I’ve often heard it said that written language is one of the weakest forms of communication because you lose much of the context surrounding the message.  While that is generally true, I don’t believe that is universally the case.  Hastily written messages are, in fact, dangerous because they can be very easily misinterpreted. Non-verbal queues, inflection and intonation, and immediate feedback are all lost due to the delay and separation that occurs when we communicate in writing, so a poorly crafted thought can lead to amazing misinterpretations.  However, I’ve found that there are a wide range of topics for which verbal communication is much more dangerous than writing.

Contentious topics or complex issues require great thought and deliberate approaches that are easily screwed up when responding to someone in the heat of the moment.  Writing on these topics allows me the time and opportunity to analyze the messages being sent, evaluate them against my purpose in communicating, and adjust them appropriately before the intended audience has received the wrong message.  Taking time to write out my thoughts also allows me to analyze the concepts, evaluate the supporting arguments, and ensure my position is well founded.  Carefully crafted writing, while missing the nonverbal elements of communication, is uniquely well suited for dealing with thorny, contentious, or complicated issues.

Sometimes I write because it is easier for me to put strong emotions or difficult topics into words when they are written.  I find certain things very difficult to speak about with a steady voice and a rational mind.  I often use poetry, in particular, to touch on these things I can’t really express otherwise.  The ability to address these kinds of emotions without directly speaking to them and in a form that can mean something completely different to each new reader has drawn me to poetry, especially when I’m having difficulty communicating in other ways.

The last reason I’ll touch on is probably the most fundamental and enduring one.  I write to leave a piece of me behind.  Much of what we know about history comes from writings left behind by those who went before.  In our modern world, people have shifted to less and less durable forms of communication.  By the time my children are having children, much of what I experienced will be lost to modern memory if it isn’t recorded somewhere.  The stories of my childhood won’t be there to entertain and educate my children, grand-children, and great grand-children if I don’t write them down.  I want my progeny to know who I was so they can understand a little of where they came from.

 

 

Anyone Interested?

UPDATE:

To the handful of people who were interested in this, it has fallen victim to the whims of fortune and my current lack of motivation.  It’ll be a while before I can afford the up-front costs to get this printed.  Sorry for the teaser.  You probably didn’t really want one anyway, but I appreciate the thought.

Just finished putting together a “book” of the poetry I’ve written.  You can download a crummy low-resolution version of it at the following link:  Low resolution proof of “Doc Johnson’s Magic Mix”

I’m thinking of getting a handful actually printed and bound, but I don’t have the money at the moment to print enough to hand out.  If you are interested in having a copy and are willing to blow up to $20 on it, leave a comment with your contact info and I’ll see if I can get enough interest to make it viable.

Sunfounder Raspberry-Pi Camera Car

This Christmas, Isaac asked for a robot car.  We’d talked about giving him opportunities to begin experimenting with programming, and this seemed like a reasonable way to go.  Being the cheap guy I am, I trolled Amazon for the robot car that came with the most features for the least amount of money, knowing full well that it would probably be some cheap Chinese knockoff.  After looking at a wide range of offerings, I decided on a car marketed by Sunfounder knowing the instructions were probably crap, but confident in my ability to make it work without them.

Christmas day, Isaac and I sat down at the kitchen counter and went to work.  The kit assembled easily enough, but there were a few hiccups.

  1. The paper backing on the plastic is hard to get off.  I ended up sticking each of the parts to a piece of super-sticky duct-tape and tearing the tape off in order to get the backing off.  There is probably an easier way, but I didn’t bother looking for it.
  2. The plastic pieces that the front (steering) wheels screw into (the steering knuckle if it were a real car) is slightly too big.  If you tighten the screws all the way, the steering binds up.  I ended up filing down the top and bottom edges to open up some slack.
  3. There were a few missing screws.
  4. There is no power switch.  As soon as the batteries are installed, the entire car is powered up.  I didn’t like that approach, so I installed a small toggle switch I had in the workshop on the positive (red) wire between the battery pack and the power regulator board.
  5. There isn’t a way to cleanly shut down the pi unless you log in remotely and shut it down that way.  I’ll eventually add a pushbutton and write a code snippet to use that to trigger a soft shutdown on the pi — but that’s for later.

Otherwise, the hardware went together pretty well.  The design calls for screwing the Pi down on the chassis, but we opted to put the pi in a case, and used a rubber-band to hold it on the chassis.  We didn’t want to dedicate the Pi solely to the car.

 

A backup backup plan

If you ask my kids what I think about making plans for the future, they’re likely to say that I believe in having a plan, a backup plan, and a backup backup plan, then being ready to throw all of that away when the right thing comes along.  However, when it comes down to it, the plan and its backups seem to only really exist to make me feel a little bit better about the fact that I’m basically powerless when it comes to my future.  This point has once again been reinforced in my life.

When we lived in Texas, we made plans.  Plans that were cherished.  Plans that were detailed and intended for execution.  Some of those plans got put on hold when I got orders for New Mexico.  Some of those plans came crashing down in flames, destroyed forever.  The process of giving up on them was rather painful, and I made new plans in an attempt to fill the void.  Mostly, those plans involved getting back to Texas as quickly as possible and putting myself in a position where I could teach in a non tenure-track role and write without sinking my family finances.

As a part of those plans, I had made it clear to almost everyone within earshot that nothing could convince me to stay in the Air Force past my retirement eligibility date or take another assignment.  There wasn’t going to be anything that would entice me to move again unless it was to a place where I would be able to stay and start my post military life.  I also withdrew from a nearly complete professional development course to ensure I wasn’t going to be offered another promotion and put myself in a position where I might consider staying longer.  I was going to finish my time in my current job, retire, then go back to my place in Texas and learn to live the life of a civilian.  I had backup plans, and backup backup plans, but none of them included moving again with the military, promoting again, or staying longer than 20 years.

That changed a little over two weeks ago.  I was at work dealing with some admistrivia when an unsolicited email from someone at the Air Force Academy popped up in my inbox.  Attached to the message was a letter inviting me to apply for the position of  Permanent Professor and Department Head for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  The letter explained that this position should be viewed as starting a new career.  While the department head is still on active duty, they are not subject to many of the things I’ve grown tired of.  Whoever gets the position serves in the grade of Colonel, and never deploys or moves again until they die, voluntarily retire, or reach 64.

Now, this letter wasn’t uniquely targeting me, but rather it went out to everyone who was technically qualified.  However, it represents a scenario I hadn’t considered as even remotely feasible before.  I have always wanted to teach, but the options to do so were never viable.  Part of the drive to endure to retirement was so that I could afford to take a job teaching at a junior college or other institution more concerned with education than publications, grants, and prestige.  My best attempt to meet this need while on active duty meet with severe disappointment after finding out that AFIT (the Air Force graduate school) had fallen into the trap of publications and prestige at the expense of the students.  I was offered the position but had to refuse it, and I gave up on trying to teach while on active duty.

Unlike AFIT, the Academy understands that their reason for existence is to educate the upcoming generation of Air Force leaders.  They understand that the proper role of research in that environment is to enable the development of students.  They haven’t fallen prey to the siren song that has blurred the focus of almost every major university.  I truly believe the Academy represents an opportunity to teach, mentor, and focus on developing young men and women.  It’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been putting together the materials for an application, and yesterday before leaving work I officially threw my hat in the ring.  My odds aren’t great, but I’d forever regret it if I didn’t try.  Is this the new and unexpected plan I tell my children to be ready for?  Maybe.  I hope so, but I still have my backup plans.

 

 

Inch Deep

Once fed by melting white snow
Tumbling quickly with great energy
Living rock yielded to the potent push
As it carved deeper and built strength
Life's elements careening down stream

Then dreadfully harnessed and tapped
To suit the intent of designers
Pounding and frothing for naught
As twist upon turn changed the course
Sapping the potential and power

Till an inch deep and two miles wide
Sluggishly creeping along the way
Stagnantly pooling, nearly halting
Releasing what was suspended
All is lost by expanding too wide

Story Time: Doctor Destructo

Sitting around my parent’s house over the Thanksgiving holiday, my siblings and I started doing what we generally do on the rare occasions when we get together — we started telling stories from when we were younger.  That got me to thinking that many of the earlier stories haven’t been written down anywhere and might be lost if I didn’t change that fact.  Either that, or they would be told incorrectly by my siblings (almost certainly in a way that minimizes their roles).  So, after encouragement by Liz, I’ve decided to write down a few of them that came up in the most recent story-telling session.  In thinking about the things that we talked about, there was a common theme to many of them: I had a destructive streak in my younger years.

The Tonka Truck Incident

When I was quite young my parents had set aside a small section of the yard just off the end of the driveway as a “digging pit” where we kids were allowed to dig.  Nominally, the plan was to let us dig out a pit that my parents could then fill in with sand to make a sandbox, but for a rather long time we stuck to playing in the dirt.  To complete the fun, my parents built a small playhouse out of old shipping pallets on the end of the driveway immediately adjacent to the pit.  We spent countless hours getting dirty and generally enjoying the liberty of unstructured play.

While the construction of the playhouse was a fine example of environmentally friendly re-purposing of items that would have otherwise been thrown away, the more significant reasons for the choice of materials were economic.  With a gaggle of kids to take care of, our family didn’t have much extra money at the end of the month to use for things like toys.  For the most part, we made due with what we had or could find.  Given this context, it should be apparent that it was a big deal when both my brother Tolon and I received brand-new and very large Tonka dump-trucks for Christmas.  These were extravagant gifts.

Given the nature of these toy trucks, you would think that we would have cherished and taken good care of them.  You would think…  However, not long after we had received these fine specimens my friend Justin and I got a rather unfortunate bright idea.  We had been using these trucks to help with our “excavation” in the digging pit, and decided we wanted to see just how tough these awesome machines were.   All around the pit were large rocks that we had dug out of the hole, and these proffered a possible means to test the mettle of these awesome machines.  We decided to use the rocks to see if the toys trucks could carry the weight.

It didn’t take long to get bored with gently placing rocks into the dump-beds.  No matter how many we tried to pile into them, they just sat there doing nothing.  We clearly needed to do something more to figure out just how tough these things were.  The playhouse offered up a solution:  We could lift the rocks to the top of the playhouse, climb up there, and drop them from that great height (probably about 5 feet).  This method proved somewhat more successful as a few dents and dings began to appear in the otherwise pristine toys, but it just wasn’t satisfying to the logic of a couple of young boys.  We decided to start throwing the rocks as hard as we could from that height to really get them going and thoroughly test the toughness.

While we were deeply enthralled in this phase of the experiment, and meeting with a large degree of success, my mother came outside and saw what we were up to.  She was horrified.  She was ANGRY!  I couldn’t understand why.  Justin was sent home, and I was in trouble.  By the time we were stopped, both trucks were completely demolished.  Nowhere in the process had it occurred to me that we were in the process of destroying something my mom had scrimped and saved for.  It never crossed my mind that what I was doing was destructive and might be considered an ungrateful and disrespectful act.  Mom still talks about that incident from time to time with a hint of latent exasperation in her voice.  Apparently it was as traumatic for her as her reaction was for me.  For my part, I’m firmly in my mom’s camp as to the awfulness of what I did.  Why she didn’t skin me alive is just a testament to her patience and long-suffering attitude towards some of my more challenging youthful (and later, even my more mature) characteristics.

Bombs Away

One of my more frequent friends when I was young was a kid named Jay Fuel who lived a few houses down the street with his mother and grandparents.  Jay and I had a knack for getting into trouble, and Jay’s grandfather had a knack for scaring the pee out of me.  He was quite intimidating to a kid my size.  We usually played at my house — partly because I was afraid of Jay’s grandpa.  However, in spite of my hesitation, one day we decided to hang out at his house.

Jay’s back-yard, the way I remember it, was full of all kinds of interesting stuff ranging from old toilets and lawnmowers to building materials and toys.  It was a fun place to explore and play, if a little dangerous.  On this particular day we were exploring behind a shrub at the back of the house when we found a bunch of of small glass bottles.  I later found out that these were all empty glass mini-bottles from various types of alcohol — apparently someone in the family was trying to hide their habit by stashing the empties out of sight in the back yard — but at the time, they were just cool looking little bottles.  They were an interesting lot, with lots of green, blue, and clear glass; and we spent time looking at them trying to make up our minds as to how we could best put them to use.  We HAD to find something to do with them.

While considering our options, an entertaining possibility crossed our minds.  This particular house had a basement with a walk-out door in the back, and to make the walk-out basement work the builder had built retaining walls to hold back the grade until the lot sloped downward enough to be below the basement level.  Near the house, these retaining walls were about four feet high and had a concrete slab at their base.  It didn’t take long for one of us to lob a bottle off the retaining wall and see it come down with a satisfying crash onto the slab, shattering into a million pieces in the process.  After this successful experiment, we quickly began an all-out campaign of destruction as one was followed by another, and another, and other, until we had broken all of them — there were a LOT of them.

Looking down on the large spray of razor-sharp glass shards, I must have realized we were going to get into trouble and quickly said good buy to Jay and ran for home.  I’d only just made it home when my mom got a call from Jay’s grandfather.  He wasn’t happy, and I was terrified.  I was turned around, sent back to Jay’s house, and made to apologize to an even more intimidating than usual grandfather.  After that, Jay and I spent a long time cleaning all of that mess up.  I doubt we got it all, and have to assume everyone wore shoes when going out that door for a long time afterward.

A Broken Window

My friend Zak lived just around the block, and I spent lots of time at his house during the summer when we were out of school.  When I was probably ten or so, Zak’s dad built a new shed in the back-yard to store his disassembled Harley and a bunch of other random stuff in.  Given the potential for imagination that this treasure-trove of junk represented, we would often use it as a kind of a club-house.  On one occasion when we were in there, we found a large rubber mallet and one of those small exercise trampolines that were quite popular in the 1980s.  So, what could a couple of mischievous young boys do with a trampoline and a mallet?  The answer is obvious, isn’t it?  Bounce the hammer off of the trampoline!

Not satisfied with simply bouncing the hammer, we decided we needed something to use as a target.  The shed was an obvious target; it was right there, big enough to hit easily, and we didn’t think a little rubber mallet could hurt that big, sturdy, structure.  It didn’t occur to us that the large plate-glass window right in the middle of the wall would be a problem.   After two or three successful throws that resulted in satisfying “thuds” and small dents in the siding, Zak threw the fateful one that hit the shed square in the center of the window.  The result was as you might expect.  Plate glass is no match for a heavy hammer (rubber or not) flying at high-speed. Needless to say, Zak’s dad was none-too happy with the result, and I tried to avoid going over to his house for quite a while after that.

It Looked Like a Fireplace

My grandparents lived in a rather small cinder-block house built not long after World War II.  When I was quite young (probably around 8 or so) they decided to expand the roughly 900 square feet in which they had raised their nine children by adding a laundry room on the back of the house.  I remember going over the day they poured the slab and watching as my dad and several of my mom’s brothers helped pour the concrete.   As they worked the concrete, I watched through the sliding-glass doors in the family room, disappointed that I didn’t get to help.  After watching the work for a while, I wandered over to the corner of the room where a wood/coal-burning stove sat on a floor of red brick with bricks on the wall behind the stove.  Grandpa and Grandma kept knickknacks on the shelf formed where the bricks stopped as they went up the walls, and I liked to look at them.

Many other memories based at Grandma and Grandpa’s house involve the family room and the end of the room with the wood-burning stove in particular.  The Christmas tree was always in the other corner on the same end of the room as the stove, and we spent at least part of every Christmas day with Grandma and Grandpa.  I sometimes sat on the fender of the other coal-fired stove in the front-room eating my thanksgiving dinner since there weren’t enough tables and chairs for everyone.  I remember many days sitting near one or the other of those stoves when we went over to visit on cold Sunday nights in the Winter and loving the feel of the warmth radiating off of them.  I have a lot of memories involving those small corners of small rooms.

One memory in particular seems to surface when my brother and I start reminiscing.  We had been visiting Grandpa on a cold day, and he decided to light the fire.  Tolon and I went out the the garage where Grandpa had a bin full of wood scraps and helped carry several into the house and watched as Grandpa used the wood to get the fire started and get some coal burning.  As young boys, Tolon and I were always fascinated with fire.  We got excited as we watched Grandpa light or feed the fires in the stoves.

A day or two later, Tolon and I were playing in the basement at home.  We had a collection of random wood scraps that passed as toys, including a cut-off broom handle.  I don’t really remember, but I’m pretty sure we decided it looked a little bit like a log and that it would burn pretty well.  We also knew that there was a place in the basement that had something to do with fire.  The pilot light in the furnace was clearly visible, and to us it looked something like Grandpa’s stoves.  We decided to feed it with wood and build a fire.  In went the broom handle, and, as expected, it almost instantly caught fire.

At about that time, Tolon pulled the broom-handle out of the furnace fully engulfed in flames.  I don’t remember if it was because someone was coming downstairs, or because we just got spooked, but in either case, we had a flaming stick.  In a panic, Tolon snuffed the flaming torch in the scrap of carpet on the floor in front of the furnace, burning a quarter-sized hole in the carpet without really putting out the fire.  The flames only died out after stomping on them in a panic.  That burned hole was all the evidence required to indict both of us, and it remained there to testify against us for many more years (at least ten).  Tolon claims to this day that it was my idea.  I deny the allegation.

Story Time: First Kiss

I don’t remember if I heard it first-hand, or if it was passed down to me by others, but my Grandfather was credited with saying “kissing a woman you aren’t going to marry is like licking the butter off of someone else’s bread.”  I don’t generally lick butter off of my own bread, not to mention off of other’s bread, so this image seemed a bit odd to me.  However, I’m pretty sure what he really meant was that you should reserve that act for when a relationship is pretty serious.  It seems odd to me that this came from my grandfather who was also reported to have kissed his future wife on the first date and was so impressed with the result that he had to come back for more.  In that case, that first-date kiss ultimately resulted in nine kids and over 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

As a general rule, I disregarded this advice when I was young.  It rarely took long for me to finagle a goodnight kiss or two — sometimes following my grandpa’s example and accomplishing the feat on the first date.  However, somewhere along the line I stepped back, took stock, and decided I didn’t like where that trend was taking me.  I had experienced a series of bad breakups and relationships that had pushed to a place I wasn’t happy to go.  As a result, I basically swore off of dating and women with the intention of graduating college before allowing another girlfriend to get overly serious.  That intention didn’t last, though.  A few months after this I put this resolution into force, I met a striking young woman who captured my attention with a fierceness for which I was completely unprepared.  Swearing off of women all together was simply not an option with someone like her tantalizingly close.

This new development left me completely unable to stick to my initial resolution.  I was not about to pass up the opportunity represented by this amazing young lady, so the resolution to stay single had to go.  However, I was still motivated not to fall into the same trap I’d been in all too many times.  Since my original resolution wasn’t viable, I adjusted it to resolve to make this round different and be more careful about how I managed the relationship.  After the prior disasters I wanted to take things slower and better manage expectations on both sides.  Among other changes, there would be no first-date kisses.  After a few dates I was even more convinced than before that I wanted this relationship to progress differently.

Unlike many other plans of mine, this one seemed to work.  As time evolved, so did the relationship, and what started out as a fun date to keep the weekends from being boring quickly evolved to long evenings together as often as possible.  Frequently those evenings would close out with a long close stare into each others eyes, with me at least wanting badly to lean in and kiss those beautiful lips.  But I stuck to my guns, though, and would only squeeze her hand (or something along those lines) and walk to my car without giving in to those inclinations.  Sometimes our faces would be just inches apart for a very pregnant pause, but that’s where it stopped.  I didn’t want to ruin a good thing by moving too fast.

One evening Liz and I were talking in my driveway before she left to go home and I lost my will to resist.  She was amazingly beautiful in the moonlight and frankly irresistible, but rather than lean in and steal a kiss I did something I had never done before…  I asked.  She said yes, and I didn’t wait to give her any time to reconsider.  It was an amazing first kiss.  One that I’ll never forget.  However, my favorite part of this story happened later.

A few dates later Liz and I were talking and she smiled and almost started laughing.  She had something she wanted to tell me about that first kiss.  You see, there was a set of railroad tracks that crossed the road that connected her house with mine, and as a kid folks in my area used to have a tradition that if you touched a screw and made a wish while crossing the railroad tracks, your wish would come true.  Liz, wondering why I was taking so long to kiss her, touched a screw and wished for a good night kiss.  I suppose it worked, and I’m glad it did.  That kiss was the first of many, and set the course that would eventually lead to a very tender one across the altar.  To this day, I think about that story every time I cross a set of railroad tracks.