Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Bird

A strange thing happened yesterday.  My wife noticed a small bird floundering in our pool.  Not wanting to remove a dead bird later, I picked it out with a skimmer, and deposited it carefully in the grass near the edge of the water.

It should dry off and be fine, I thought.

I continued to lounge in the evening air.  Some time later, I noticed that the bird was still there, so I stopped to investigate.  The bird still lived, but it was covered with a few dozen ants.  I am not sure why, but I picked her up, a female yellow grass finch, probably the single most common bird in South America.  She shivered with hypothermia, not noticing me at all, and it occurred to me that nothing deserved to die like that.

I killed ants by the dozens as they migrated from the wet bird to my warm hand, then I picked them off the bird’s tiny body, cursing them as I did so.

A few minutes with the hair dryer, and the bird was fluffy again, but didn’t show many signs of life. After a time, she started looking around a little, and clung to my finger with tiny talons, yet she never showed an ounce of fear.  She just didn’t have the energy.  Instead, she just nested in my warm hands.

A full half hour later, I perched her on the limb of a bush as night fell.  She roosted there, half aware, but warm and dry.  I checked one more time before I turned in, and still she sat.

She won’t live until morning, I thought.  But I had given her a chance at it.

As I lied awake in bed, trying to relax, I couldn’t help but thing about the bird, and how it had made me feel.  All the times I was a nurse, I remember feeling like that.  Compassion might have been the motivation, but it wasn’t the feeling.  I didn’t feel particularly sorry for the bird, but I wanted her to live.  I WILLED it.

I had felt focused, like I was confronting an enemy.  It could have also been described as tenacity.  I had decided the bird wasn’t going to die, that I wasn’t going to permit it.  I remember thinking this same thought to myself over the years as I cared for my human patients.  Sometimes I was successful, and sometimes not, but never once was my will shaken, not a single time.  I might fall apart afterward, but while there was a job to be done, I couldn’t allow failure from within.

This morning, shortly after I woke up, I went outside to check on my patient.  She still roosted in the same spot I had placed her.  As I approached, she turned her head, and flew straight to the top of the tallest tree, full of the vigor of life.

Life 1, Death 0.  Today was starting out on the right note.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Old Man's Words

Words are powerful.  This should be obvious from the title of my page, but a few times during my life, a person has said a few words, and it made such a profound impact on me that I not only remember it to this day, but try to shape my life according to those very words.

The man’s name was Norwood Veatch.  Not to be confused with his son of the same name.  At the time I knew him, Norwood was a man of considerable financial means.  He had made several fortunes in property and industry.  I never asked him what the numbers were, and he didn’t offer.  Based on his surroundings, though, Norwood’s money was set to outlive him by decades.  He was paying for 2 customized apartments in an exclusive long-term care facility, and had paid to have the wall removed between the two.

The old man sat in a scooter chair most of the day, entertaining himself by trading stocks on the Internet, which was still an uncommon practice in the late 90s.  He told me he did it for fun, and to give himself something on which to focus, so he didn’t get depressed.  He lived with his wife Frances, who loved him dearly.  He had three or four grown children, but in the four years I knew him, I had met only two of them.  They didn’t visit much.

“There is an ocean of money out there to be made,” he told me one day.

I was skeptical, since my ocean at that time would have fit in a thimble.

“The problem is, it takes time to make it.  Time is what you don’t have.”

Okay, I was following him so far.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to listen to a pep talk or the musings of a sad old man.  He then told me a little about how he had built his fortune, probably at the expense of other things.  His children bothered him, he didn’t know whether to be proud of them or disown them, but he expressed that he wished he had spent more time teaching them the value of character (If any of them ever read this, I am sorry if these words sting, but he blamed himself more than you).   I couldn’t figure out where he was going with it, so I asked him what he would change.

“When you are sitting in this chair, there is one thing left, and only one thing.  Your money can run out, or your family can just stop coming around.  The things you have done, and the experiences you have had, that’s all that’s left.  Get as much of that as you can.”

Norwood died a few months later.  His wife died peacefully not even a week afterwards.    The magnitude of his words is still immense – life is about the experience.  Go to new places, even if it’s just a walk around the block.  Try new foods, strange hobbies, and smell the flowers.  Take the time to listen to what others have experienced. 

That was a five minute conversation over a decade ago from a man I barely knew.  Words…the right words...are power.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Today, it mattered

Today’s blog post is a special treat, a guest post from my long time friend JourneyLynn Hurst.  The first time I remember meeting her, we were in an Army exercise in Wisconsin in 2005, and I was evaluating a Combat Support Hospital’s emergency department.  JL was there, an Irish girl with a bit of a Missouri drawl, a sharp tongue, and the inability to control it.  I remember her charisma – she was the type of person people wanted to be near, and she told it like it was.  She had been a sailor before she was a soldier, and you could tell.  

A few years later, she and I served on a deployment with the same unit, she in northern Iraq and me in the west.  In early 2010, after she found out that I was flying 800 miles to a terrifying job interview near where she lived with her husband, teenage son, and twin baby boys, she opened up their home to me, and provided minivan service, pizza, cold beer, and most importantly, emotional support.  I got the job, which so far has been the adventure of a lifetime, and I have in no small part, this woman to thank for it.

She shares with us her thoughts from Iraq in 2008:  


This is the story that sprang to mind when you asked for an entry. I sent this email to my folks on the May 23, 2008. We had been in country for 8 months and some change. I was tired, discouraged, angry. We'd hit the "mid-tour slump", where it seemed as if there were no end in sight, and had a few weeks straight out of Hades to boot – a mass casualty event with 22 patients in 10 minutes - the death of a soldier from another unit who had become a friend to several of us - a raid that turned into an ambush and left several good men dead.  We were forced to listen to the local insurgent group celebrating loudly in the streets of neighboring Tikrit while we formed a "wall of honor" and escorted their bodies to the waiting transport planes. Tempers were frayed, stamina and optimism were stretched to the breaking point - we didn't feel as though we were doing any good at all.  I took pride in being a medic.  It had been my calling since I was 19 and wet behind the ears. Now, at 33, I didn't even want to do it anymore. I didn't know anything for sure, except that I was counting down the days until I could get the hell out of that godforsaken country and never look back. Then this happened - it was one of the most significant moments, not only of my time in Iraq, but of my entire life.

Dear Folks:

Sometimes there are moments when you know you've done a good thing, made a difference. Tonight was one of them.

There is an Iraqi doctor we have had (we just call him "Doc" since nobody can pronounce his name) as a patient for several months now. He lives in a small village near here. Most of the doctors in the area were run off, kidnapped or killed during Saddam's regime and the ensuing power struggles, but Doc has stayed, running a clinic out of a small garage near his home.
This man EXEMPLIFIES commitment and courage. He stayed, even after numerous death threats to both himself and his family. Though supplies were hard to come by (that's how we first got to know him; begging daily at the front gate for "extra" things we could supply) and there were several attempts on his life, he continued to give "his" people the best care he could, even though his patients sometimes lived several days journey away and he had to travel through hostile territory to do so. He's "one brave sumbitch", as the infantry guys like to say.

A while ago, during a pretty bad day here, the bad guys finally caught up with him. We managed to save his life, but he was badly wounded, and lost both legs below the knee. We arranged medical care for him at a local hospital in the village but that's not much to write home about, so he's been back and forth at the CSH since then. Surgery after surgery, debridement (cleaning and scrubbing) of his wounds and being fitted for prosthetic limbs, along with weeks of physical therapy. Through it all, his only goal has been to get well enough to go BACK into the same village where they tried to kill him, to his home and clinic, and continue his work as a doctor.

He had a bout with depression that it took us a while to snap him out of, but we managed. One of our "transplant" docs (they rotate in every 90 days) wrote home and got a set of legs donated. They're kind of clunky and nowhere near the state of the art stuff that a soldier would have who's wounded, but he was thrilled to get them, and they'll do the job. Now that he's in a better mood, he's a pretty easygoing guy, with a nice smile and he's become kind of an unofficial mascot around here - we've all cheered him on during his therapy, and he's been a big help, taking the time to teach us a lot about Iraqi culture and to help other patients on the ward when they needed something and a translator wasn't available.

So, with all that said, I think you can understand why there wasn't a dry eye in the house tonight at dinner when Doc, surrounded by physical therapy staff and followed by a medic pushing an EMPTY wheelchair, walked on his OWN power, using his brand new legs into the dining hall for his first officially cleared "outing" since the injury. We got some strange looks from the "regular" soldiers around us, who didn't understand what the fuss was about, as we pushed back our trays, jumped up, cheered, clapped, stomped, yelled at the top of our lungs (Bruce even got up on the table) and then unashamedly wiped our streaming eyes as a REALLY quite embarrassed Doc sat at a table in the back.

Like I said, for every time I wonder if anything we've done here
makes a difference, this time I know it did. We did GOOD here and THIS is what our job is all about.  Just had to share.

Love, J

Journey currently lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, not quite grown-up son, and the twins, who are now past the terrible twos, but have decided to extend the reign of terror for another year.  She refers to them as the co-conspirators.  You may read about their exploits and others on her Blog, Have Minivan, Will Travel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Adventure Continues…Parque de las Aguas, Lima, Peru

Sunday, my family and I hopped a public bus in Lima (An adventure in itself) and wrote over to one of Lima’s big attractions, a huge public park filled with giant fountains.  The words “huge” and “giant” are understated.  Lima’s Parque de las Reservas (Park of the Reserves, named after a militia unit in some battle or another) is the current Guinness record holder for the largest fountain complex in the world.  This place has 13 works of oversized wet art, including an animated array on the same order as the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, a giant central fountain that spews 250 feet straight up, and a number of smaller sculptures.  We had visited this place a few weeks before, but we were going to try something new.

We wanted to see it at night.

After standing in line for only about ten minutes, we finally gained entry.  The fee is reasonable, 4 soles (about $1.50) per person.  Outside the park, there are plenty of candy apple and cotton candy vendors, so of course we had to partake of some cotton candy (another whole sol for each of those).  Peru’s economy is bustling – if there is a market for something, the industrious Peruvians will fill it, even if selling cotton candy isn’t a great income, it beats poverty.

The place was pretty crowded, but it wasn’t noisy, and it was virtually litter-free.  The crowds milled slowly to each fountain, including the tunnel of water, and the fountain of the children, whose primary purpose seemed to be soaking everyone who dared get close to the skin.

Did I mention it was dark?  At night, the fountains are lit up by rainbow-colored lights that often change, giving the waters a spooky appearance that lives up to the name, “The Magical Circuit of Water.”

Three times each night, a laser light show is projected onto the largest fountain array, and this lasts about 15 minutes.

Including bus fare, cotton candy, and park admission, my family of four spent about $12 on the evening.  I must say that I was amazed.  

My adventures will continue here, but you may read my more serious works of non-fiction on my Facebook page, The Pen and The Sword.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Order of The Queen of the Night

Last week I participated in a secret ritual under cover of darkness.  The participants of this ritual tend to be well-established members of society, and the tradition is to invite others of the upper crust to participate.  The subject has been featured in witches’ spells, on album covers of heavy metal bands, and in numerous classic works of literature dating back centuries, but most people will live their entire lives and never witness the events of last Thursday night.

No, I haven’t joined the Templars, but I am now the newest member of the Queen of the Night club.  Before I give my friends more fodder for stifled laughter, I will halt the suspense.

The Queen of the Night, or Night blooming Cereus, is a plant from the cactus family which blooms for a single night.  The thing looks just plain creepy, like some kind of man-eating plant straight out of Little Shop of Horrors – I subconsciously stepped around it to stay out of its reach.  The buds begin to open about an hour after sunset, and are in full blossom between ten and eleven p.m.  By four or five in the morning, they are wilted and gone.  A friend of mine had two huge specimens, with a total of fifteen buds.  Two of the blooms had gone early the previous night, and one more was set for the next, but the bulk of them were opening on this night, so we had been extended an invitation for a quiet little flower party.

By 8:30 that night, I sat in a half circle of chairs on my friend’s patio, with pale light coming only from the windows of the house.  We sipped red wine and ate little chunks of cheese and olives from fancy toothpicks.  It wasn’t a place that I would have seen myself a few years ago.  I am more of a beer and barbecue kind of guy. 

We all waited patiently as the blooms opened, and then I understood why people think these blossoms are magic.  In fact, it was believed that if a woman drank from the blooming flower, that her youth of the past year would be restored.  The most powerful witches were said to achieve immortality in this way, as long as they drank once each year.

I didn’t drink from the flower, and I thought it would be rude to suggest it to the others, but I did leave that night feeling a little bit in awe.  We had witnessed something in nature that few get to see, something truly beautiful.  Next year, though, when the Night blooming Cereus appears again, I’m going to try to talk the host into a festivity of cold beer, popcorn, and a little music.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Welcome to me!

Hail and welcome to me.  After years of resistance, I am finally writing my first blog.  I have several friends who do it, and a couple who do it very well, like my best friend Sam Reeves, a humor writer who is responsible for With Both Hands and a Flashlight, or a particularly blunt dear Irish friend who writes Have Minivan, will Travel.  My disclaimers:  Sam is weird.  The Irish girl hates stereotypes, so if you comment on her posts in such a way, she will probably jump up and punch you once she finishes her beer.

There have always seemed to me many reasons that blogging was to be avoided, and they generally stem from others that I have read.  It has always seemed to me that most blogs lacked anything really meaningful.  People will write of the latest exploits of their children, and those without children will talk about kitties and doggies, and no one really cares.  Others post more serious topics, stuffed with opinion on political or economic topics, and no one really cares.

I have written as a serious hobby for several years, and I didn’t want my writing to become something that lacked a direction, a focus. 

Then I noticed that I have neither.

This was a result of returning to some of my earlier works, to ponder my evolution as a writer.  I have some fantastic pieces in my notebook, sitting right beside some papers that are only good for starting fires.

A quick review of my Yahoo! Voices works makes no sense at all.  I’ve tried to write on all sorts of things, from finance, to places I have visited, fiction stories, and non-fiction based on my exploits or those of others.  There is no central theme, which was the point for a while.  I was experimenting with my style of writing to find out what worked, and what people liked to read.  It certainly isn’t the money – I’ve earned a little more than $75 in the last four years, a number that is inflated by a freelance piece that I sold in 2008 for $15 – an informational brochure in which I was not credited.  The rest is one or two dollars a month in advertising revenue.

Writing to make money isn’t a motivator, because there are faster, easier ways to wealth.  My motivation is fame.  Not for myself, but for what I write.  If I was known by a few million people as “What’s his name, that guy who wrote Insert Title Here, I would be ecstatic. 

Since the only way to measure distribution is with page counters, I tried to make sense of that, and I just can’t.  People won’t share a short story that took weeks to get right, with paragraphs carefully crafted to inspire.  The video of a cat chasing a laser pointer gets 2 million views.   To illustrate this insanity, I’ll pull some historical data.

Since it is election season, I thought, “Why not write on a popular topic that other people might find interesting?”  Thus was crafted, Top Ten Dumb Quotes from 2012 Presidential Candidates, released December 8th

35 pageviews.  I guess people aren’t typing that into Google.

The Top Ten Things I Hate About the Twilight Movies got 157.  This should at least illustrate an important ratio – there are four times as many people interested in Twilight than those who care about the presidency.

Angel, a true story I crafted two months ago, has 1,376.  It wasn’t written to be searchable at all - I created it to inspire, and to tell a powerful story of a day experienced in the emergency room in western Iraq in 2008.  Take a break from reading this drivel, and enjoy words that were forged to reach right down your throat and grab you in a place you don’t find comfortable. 

My all time best seller is a submission that was rejected by the publisher.  Basking in my $15 success from my first sale, I tried again to write an informational pamphlet on a medical topic.  After I recovered from the “Doesn’t suit our needs at this time” speech, I posted it in the open out of spite.

Women's Health Issues: Fibroid Tumors has 6,838 readers to date, and still gets hit almost every day.  It’s not exactly a page-turner. 

In spite of all this, my Facebook page, The Pen and The Sword, only has 53 likes.

So, there doesn’t seem to be a magic formula, and I won’t contaminate my writing by trying to cram keywords into it…

Get Rich Quick with Free Videos of Brittney Spears Naked with Barack Obama

…Okay, but just that one time.

I have decided that I am going to write what I want.  Today I might want to make you happy, and tomorrow angry.  I want to make you cry, and with the next post make you laugh.  Some of my stories are true, and some are complete fantasy – I will be upfront about which is which.

What does Stephen King do if he gets the urge to write something entertaining for a small child of a friend?  I’m sure he can do this, and do it well, but does he feel the need to hide it, because that isn’t his usual style?  Or does Little Scruffy get her heart ripped out at the end by radioactive junk-yard dogs?

In the end, I am going to write what I want to write, so here it comes - all the randomness that is me.