Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hickory nuts

I collected hickory nuts today and it reminded me of my Dad.

When my family moved to Lockwood Avenue in Greenville, the property came with two important features: a brick grill and a hickory tree. The brick grill ended up being useless - I was eventually paid to break the bricks and haul it away.

But the other feature - the hickory tree, was important.

Before Dad would grill out, he would send me out to collect hickory nuts for the fire.  There was only one tree, and so collecting was pretty easy.  I would come back with a couple of cupfulls from every foraging session.  Dad would add it to the fire, and the result was perfect, smoky meat.

I the beauty of hindsight, there is probably no better way to engage a pyro kid somewhere other than the firepit than to give him a task specifically designed to keep him a safe distance from the fire.

By the time he is back, the fire has started to die down.  And the real work of grilling can begin.

I have a pet theory, that the skill of carving meat and grilling skips a generation.  I honestly believe that the accomplished grillmaster cannot let a child take the job - a task that he has perfected over the years by trial and error - and destroy a piece of meat.  And by controlling the fire, he effectively removes the knowledge from being passed along to the next generation.

By the time the following generation comes around, the grillmaster seeks to share the knowledge and wisdom of a thousand steaks.  The grandchild then becomes the fire-priest-in-training, eventually supplanting the old generation.

Dad had lots of reasons for keeping his little firebug away from the grill.  But the unintended consequence is that I have no idea what I am doing when the coals get hot.  I re-invent the wheel.  Every.  Single.  Time.

 Nevertheless, the lesson of the hickory continues.  And as long as I am grilling, and re-learning the process, I'll be reading, guessing, scorching, charring, dripping, re-heating, and eating delicious failures and scrumptious successes.  And with each one, when it is available, I will be charring some hickory nuts while I do.  And wondering whether Dad was just sending me on a mission, or whether he really did like the flavor.

I am thinking maybe he did.  And that getting the kid away from the fire was pure lagniappe.

This year, Remi, Gabi and I built a firepit.  We grilled on it, and I explained to Remi that I was just making it up - I had no special knowledge about grilling.  And in the process, he and I both started, once again, to learn how to char meat.  This time, we did it together.

So after the kids left. I found myself with bratwurst on the fire, thinking of what Independence Day really means.  I learned a lot about fire, but did so under the watchful eye of my dad.  Even if he was not sharing his grill with me, he watched his pyro develop.  And start fires of his own.

We don't ever really become independent.  We rely on the knowledge of what went before, and break away, trying to make it better.  Sometimes, we burn the brisket.  Other times, we get it right.

And sometimes, we just get to watch the fire, and marvel at how wonderful the smell of hickory really flavors our lives so perfectly.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Is Half-Staff the Norm?

The US Flag outside the Mississippi River Commission building was at half staff last week.


I subscribe to a website that alerts me as to the status of the flag. After working on a military base for a while, I felt like I needed to know WHY the flag was not at full staff.  The website would give me an update.

Most of the time, I would already know.  Head of state died.  Memorial Day.  September 11.  Pearl Harbor.

Other times, we fly the flag at half staff for a presidential declaration because of the death of an official, former officials, or foreign dignitaries. Or the president may order half-staff display of the flag after other tragic events (half mast, by the way, is aboard a ship - thanks, Uncle Google!).

But these declarations are no longer the exception.  They are the rule.

Just since Memorial Day, we have flown the flag at half staff:

- between the 12th and the 16th of June in response to the Orlando killings.
- between July 8th and July 12th for the Dallas shootings.
- three days later, for the Nice incident - July 15 through July 19.

We didn't even get through the mourning period for Nice before we had another proclamation:

HONORING THE VICTIMS OF THE ATTACK IN BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA - - - - - - - BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION As a mark of respect for the victims of the attack on police officers perpetrated on Sunday, July 17, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I hereby order that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset, July 22, 2016.

In total, 69 proclamations have been made during the Obama presidency, and 170 days that the flag has flown at half staff in the past year.  When you add in the proclamations by the state governors (who can also issue a flag proclamation in their state), 336 days of the past year have I went through the list, and it is not an Obama thing - not as if he is making proclamations right and left. It is just a shocking level of violence that

Take a look at the list just in the past year: (Nancy Reagan and Antonin Scalia are added in, as well).

Fort Hood.
Roseburg, Oregon.
San Bernadino.
Baton Rouge.

Which one had you forgotten, off that list? (For me, it was the Umpqua shooting.  I suspect that our hearts can only hold a certain amount of violence at a time).

The issues are complex.  The list does not just represent terrorism.  Or police deaths. Or victims of hate crimes.  Or school shootings.

It is all of this and more.  And I am finding my heart broken anew, every day.  And worrying that I am developing scar tissue, where that raw emotion used to be. Am I getting jaded?  Do I just expect violence to be part of my society?  Have I given up on a hope of a peaceful society, where we expect our citizens to die of, oh, I don't know.... old age?

Am I accustomed to seeing the flag at half staff?

Can I afford to be?

Everyone is passionate about their answer. 

More guns are the answer.  Stricter gun laws are the answer.
Police sensitivity training is the answer.  Increasing police budgets is the answer. 
Getting rid of all foreigners is the answer.  Embracing a multicultural society is the answer.
Being polite to the police is the answer.  Revamping the idea of police is the answer.
Being liberal is the answer.  Being conservative is the answer.

I lived for more than a year in a country where the violence was completely out of hand.  Murders, domestic violence, assassinations, drug wars, violence against indigenous peoples... Guatemala had it all.  I am not unfamiliar with what it is like to live in a battle zone.

But as the violence escalates around me, and as I hear my friends on social media all echo the same refrain - STOP KILLING PEOPLE! - I worry that I am beginning to accept the violence in my world as background noise.  I worry that I am living my life expecting the flag to always be at half staff.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Le roi est mort, vive le roi!

Richard Hansen, the Commander of New Orleans District, is headed to his next deployment in Afghanistan for his next assignment.  I wish him good luck and godspeed in his work. And I pray for his safe return. 

A few years ago, I watched a fascinating bit of pageantry within the Corps of Engineers, as the Hurricane Protection Office - who oversaw the building of the levees following Katrina - changed their leadership in a Change of Command Ceremony.  I wrote up a quick overview, and laughed about it with some friends.

I saw another CoCC this past week, as the New Orleans commander was replaced with a new Colonel.   It was different.  But some of the elements remained the same.

From the original:
It was a lovely service, with a retired Lieutenant Colonel singing the national anthem (beautiful voice), a good, stirring speech from the Brigadier General, and brief remarks by the outgoing Colonel (he is going to lead the Corps effort in Afghanistan) and the incoming Colonel.

But I found the actual ritual of change of command fascinating as an anthropological insight into Corps mentality.

As a narrator (a captain whose public reading skills had definitely not figured into his promotions) described the scene from the podium, the highest ranking Noncom in the Hurricane Protection Office approaches the flags on the right of the stage, removes the corps colors from the stand, and performs a smart about face.  He then marches to a spot in front of the assembled crowd, and turns to face the small group at the front of the room.  With his arms extended holding the colors, he makes his presentation to the civilian in the middle of the huddle.  The civilian turns to his left and hands the flag to the outgoing Colonel, who turns and presents it to the Brigadier General, who turns and presents it to the incoming Colonel, who extends his arms to give it back to the Noncom.  The Noncom marches back over to the stand, forcefully places the flag into the stand with a "HOOOAH!", and everyone goes back to where they were before the ceremony.

OK, let me see if I have this right.  The guy reading from the script gets lost, repeatedly, on the page.  The General flies into New Orleans on the government jet (the one I made turn around because I stole the pilot's computer) to pass a flag from one officer to another.  A civilian, looking uncomfortable in the whole mix, acts as an intermediary between the Noncom and the outgoing Colonel, but is not involved from that point forward and never interacts with the General.  The Colonels do not actually interact with one another.  And the end result involves the Noncom enthusiastically putting things back the way they were before any of this happened, and shouting out that the task is complete.

Synopsis of the synopsis: we got fired up to do something nobody wanted done, involved a bunch of brass with pomp and circumstance, shouted that we did it, and when we were done, everything was exactly the way it was beforehand.

Some days it seems like that ceremony is a perfect metaphor for what we are doing.

2016 New Orleans Change of Command Ceremony. 
Because outdoors in June in New Orleans is the best.

 The ceremony this time around was a little more tame, and a little less a metaphor for the work we do.  But I am keenly aware of how much the change of command disrupts the way we do business.

Two months ago, I was deployed to help the communities in Louisiana recover after flooding took out much of the states (this time, not from hurricanes; YAY!), and was gone for a month. It was a critical time that I was gone; we bought a house and moved, the job got very intense, and the class I was taking reached a fever pitch.

The initial agreement was that I was to get a replacement that would go down at the same time as I was there, we would talk about how we had done the work last time, and then I would leave.  And from home, I would provide remote support for the replacement, coming down to help when we have public meetings, writing, reading, and researching.  But I would not have to be there for the day-to-day.

Two weeks after I arrived, there was no sign that anyone was going to back me up.  My boss was a little nervous, and I was under some pressure to get home. 

Finally, Jeff joins me.  He is brilliant, hard working, and has a great attitude.  That is, his attitude is much like mine - a little snarky, a little funny, and hiding a thoughtful demeanor behind a happy-go-lucky outlook.

He also makes a mean sazerac...

Anyway, we worked together in Baton Rouge for a couple weeks more, and I handed the reins over to him, with a promise to help him any way I could.

Slam that flag down into the stand and shout "HOOOAH!"

While I was deployed, I had several projects that had been nearing the hot seat.  They got there while I was gone. 

Two of my teammates, Mincer and Sarah, picked up the baton and kept running, even while other stuff was piling on their plates.  But they saw the need to get stuff done, and without ceremony (see what I did there?) they took on the tasks and got them done.  Even when the burrocratic Vogons were standing in the way ("You need two spaces after the header, not one.  Print it out and bring it to me") they got the job done.

Hoooah.  (Less enthusiasm, perhaps?)

After I returned, the heat kicked up on a number of my projects, many of which were getting started before I came on board.  One particular project requires me to identify participants across the Division, and ask them to make time for the work I have for them to do.  With no compensation.  And no reward for doing the job.  No incentive at all.  My predecessor had managed, but all of the people on his list have taken jobs elsewhere - some elsewhere in the Corps, and some outside of government service.  So my job now is to convince some bosses that the work is important enough to dedicate someone to do it, who will do a good job and do it gladly for nothing but an attaboy. 

Never mind.  Just hand me the flag.  hooah

Best of luck to Colonel Clancy.  Looking forward to working with you, sir.