Infrequently updated blog of thoughts and feelings whenever I have time to sit down and write. It seems as though I have less and less time to sit down and write these days. That's why this page is static most of the time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Last November, my second cousin, Jimmy Folkes, was killed in Iraq. He was buried in Arnett, Oklahoma, a few yards from the graves of my grandfather and grandmother, my cousin, my uncle, another second cousin, and... Well, you know how these small towns can be. Everyone around knows everyone else and most of them are relatives in one way or another. My grandmother’s two sisters all lived within walking distance of each other in Arnett, the county seat of Ellis County, Oklahoma. Aunt Estelle lived up one block from grandma and Aunt Edna lived down the street around the corner and a block over the other direction. Jimmy Sr. was Aunt Edna’s son and lived in Amarillo, the "big city" 17 miles north of the small town where I grew up. I think Jimmy Jr. was one of two sons in that branch of the family. I probably only met him a few times over the years, though, despite our proximity growing up in the Texas panhandle. I had several other cousins in the area that I saw a lot more often growing up.

Anyway, even though I didn’t know Jimmy all that well, this is the first time that the war in Iraq has touched me in a personal way. I’ve been fighting it from before it ever began, marching through San Francisco with the Libertarian Party and thousands of other people before the invasion, voting in on-line polls to gauge public opinion on the matter, signing every anti-war petition, resolution and declaration I’ve come across, and engaged in voluminous email flamewars over this topic. And still, nothing I could do seemed to have any effect at all. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and more than two thousand American soldiers have died in a spectacularly bloody failure of simple common sense and good judgment, including now, my second cousin, Sgt. Jimmy Folkes.

My niece, Elizabeth Sarmiento, and her uncertain future have been constant sources of stress for Pam and I ever since she joined the Army a few years ago after losing custody of her infant daughter. We have heard from her only sporadically over the years, but she kept us informed of what she was doing and how things were going. She seemed excited, dedicated and committed to the Army and enjoyed her work immensely. She became a maintenance mechanic for Apache, Huey and Blackhawk Helicopters, and was eventually promoted to crew chief. She and her crew flew frequent Medi-vac missions for the local hospitals around Ft. Polk, Louisiana, and did search and rescue operations, since there weren’t any equivalent local resources in that part of the state to perform those tasks. Things sure would have been different, though no less interesting, if she had remained in Louisiana during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. But such was not to be. Liz was transferred out of Louisiana and back to Hawaii last summer, months before Katrina made landfall. She said there was nothing to worry about, she only had one more year left to serve, and her new skills were in far greater demand at domestic bases than they would be in Iraq. For some reason, though, the Army needs more soldiers in Hawaii, Iraq and Afghanistan than could ever be put to use in New Orleans or Biloxi.

But everyone knows how many helicopters we’ve lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, how many we are flying on a daily basis in both countries, and how necessary it is to keep these machines continuously operational in some of the most extreme environmental conditions you can imagine. Of course there is very likely a strong demand for Liz and her skills in a place as dangerous as Bagdad or Mosul, or Falujah. She wasn’t fooling me for a minute with her assurances that they weren’t likely to deploy her to Iraq. I was terrified for her. I was afraid she would die.

And then I got the news about Jimmy just after Thanksgiving from my sister, who drove along with the whole family to Arnett for the funeral. The Rev. Fred Phelps, she told me, had made noises about driving his church congregation all the way from Kansas to Amarillo to demonstrate at the funeral. Something about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and how it permits gays to serve in the armed forces and was somehow against God’s law and guaranteed us punishment in the middle east. It sounds like the typical fundamentalist bullshit I’ve come to loathe all my life, having grown up with this nonsense force-fed to me as a child, but it had nothing at all to do with Jimmy. Unless he was gay. I don’t honestly know and it doesn’t really matter to me. As I said, we weren’t close and I haven’t seen him since I was a kid. My sister said she’d saved the newspaper clippings about it and would send them to me, but so far I haven’t received them.

All I know is that Jimmy had already served 10 years in the Army and was committed to a military career. Well, he got it, but not with the kind of early retirement plan most of us anticipate. Unfortunately, this is all too often the most frequently used retirement alternative in the military.

So you cannot imagine my joy when we received the following telephone call and email message from Liz today:

Dear Aunt Pam,

Hello, sorry it's been so long, but I've been busy getting out of the military and with the custody hearings. Let me back track and fill you in on what's been going on with me. Well I got stationed out here in Hawaii in May of 2005. Upon my arrival, I hired a lawyer and since then I've been flying back and forth to Maui from O'ahu for court hearings to get full custody of Tehani. It's not over yet but it's looking promising. I've also been Honorably discharged from the military due to parenthood. Parenthood--meaning that I would have no one to watch Tehani while I was in Iraq. You see, I was scheduled to go to Iraq in June of 2006, so upon knowledge of this I made a big fuss, ending result I was allowed to favorably be dismissed from all obligations to the Army. I'm super happy about that! I've been officially out of the Army since December 29, 2005. Fortunately, I've been in long enough to keep my college fund and my GI bill which entitles me to receive monies worth 3 years of college. To top it all off I have my life back!!! It's an amazing feeling of freedom.

Well I'm going to go now, but please write me back and let me know if you got those pictures and let me know how you’re doing.

Love you lots,

You have no idea how happy I am to know that Liz won’t be shipped off to Iraq to die and leave her daughter an orphan or left in the custody of an idiot father (I’ve met Peter, Liz’s ex-husband, so I know what I’m talking about).

But this doesn’t mean I won’t stop fighting against this insane war. If anything, it has galvanized me to be even more vigorous in opposing the effort.

My second cousin lost his life last year for no reason at all. I almost lost my beautiful niece because she is bright and young and naive and thought the government would take care of her because she signed away all her rights to serve the country. I can't wait to see her again, and to finally meet her daughter, who I only know through pictures sent in Christmas cards and twice-a-year email messages.

I want to know her in a way I never knew Jimmy Folkes. I want to know who she is before she dies. I want to know who she is before I die. I want her to know who I am before I die. With any luck, that will finally happen now. Keep in touch, and I may post some photos of these folks so you will know who I'm talking about here.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Twenty-five years ago, December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered in New York City. The next day, on December 9, 1980, Philip K. Dick began working on his last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which also begins with the death of John Lennon. Dick himself died scarcely more than two years later.

Twenty-five years later, I woke up at around 2:45 a.m., December 8, 2005, for some unknown reason. I got up and went to the bathroom. I returned to bed, but had difficulty falling asleep again. I tossed and turned, but just couldn’t fall asleep. I heard my wristwatch beep on the table next to the bed at 3:00, and then again at 4:00 a.m. And still I could not fall asleep. Eventually, I must have drifted off, because the next thing I remember was the alarm waking me at 6:30 a.m. It was a major struggle to drag myself out of bed.

I trudged downstairs to make coffee and prepared to go to work. As I headed out the back door to feed the dog, I noticed that our goldfish, Chili II, was floating at the top of our aquarium. I wasn’t entirely surprised, but it still broke my heart. Much as Ken Gammage wrote some years ago about his son Ben’s goldfish, Fat 1 and Fat 2, I must record the history of our elderly goldfish, now that his story has ended on this fateful day. I wondered if my hours of insomnia could have coincided with the last beats of Chili’s goldfish heart. Did we have a bond so strong that his silent watery death would wake me in the middle of the night?

Chili II had to be at least 9 years old, which I thought must be an eternity for a goldfish. We adopted Chili II as a consequence of an elementary school fundraising fair. Nathan was probably in 3rd grade at the time and we had volunteered to work at the Roosevelt Elementary School spring carnival, as we did every year. Alex had brought home some goldfish a few years earlier from a similar event, but they didn’t last more than a few months. But Chili II was different. Chili II was a survivor.

His name has a history of its own. Chili I was a fire belly toad that Alex brought home from school when he was in first grade. His teacher apparently had bred many, many toads for the class science project—so many in fact, that she had enough for each child in the class to take one home. When Alex brought Chili home, we had to find a suitable habitat for him, so we bought a small 5 gallon aquarium. Alex said that he knows chili peppers are red and hot, so it made sense to name his fire belly toad Chili. Unfortunately, we weren’t as successful in raising a single fire belly toad as Alex’s teacher, and he only lived a few short weeks. But Alex had become very attached to him, so his death had a major impact on the child. We buried Chili in our back yard, and Alex wrote a heartfelt eulogy for him and cried as he read it to us.

When Nathan returned triumphant from the 1996 Roosevelt Spring Carnival with two tiny goldfish, we had no other place to house them but Chili’s old aquarium. One of the goldfish died within a few days, so Alex determined that the surviving fish would be named Chili II, in honor of the previous resident of the aquarium. Nathan had no objection.

Chili II was not like the other goldfish or toads we had tried to keep alive in the small two bedroom duplex we rented for 13 years. He didn’t expire after a couple of months, but seemed to thrive. We weren’t really supposed to have pets in the house, but the landlord defined a “pet” as a dog or cat (or goat, as the case may be—long story, perhaps some other time), so he didn’t seem to mind the goldfish. I learned a lot about maintaining the aquarium, which is probably why Chili II lived as long as he did. I changed the water at least every four weeks and went through several different brands of fresh water aquarium filters before we determined the best model. The Penguin Bio-wheel filter system did a much better job keeping the water clean than any other one we used, so when it became clear that Chili needed a bigger tank, we bought a 10 gallon model with a Penguin Bio-wheel filter. With this tank, I only had to change the water every six weeks, as long as I replaced the filter about every two weeks. It was Nathan’s responsibility to feed the fish every night at bedtime, and he became very good at maintaining the ritual and watching the fish as it responded to the stimulus of feeding time.

A fish is not the kind of pet you really bond with, since you can’t take it out of the water to play with it, and it doesn’t respond to the presence of humans unless food is involved, but we became comfortable with Chili II in the family room and he seemed to accept our existence as a necessary part of his life.

When we moved into our new house in 2001, Chili II had grown to a size that required an even larger aquarium. It was hard to call him a goldfish anymore, because he was almost as large as the Koi we saw in ponds all over the Japanese gardens in Portland. Since we had graduated to a larger home, Chili did as well. We transferred him into a spacious 20 gallon mansion when we moved into our new home. And of course, he responded by just growing larger. By the time he died on December 8, 2005, he was at least 7 inches long, and was no longer gold, but appeared pure white.

During the course of his nine year life, we had to deal with a number of fish illnesses. Fungal infections caused lesions on his body that had to be treated with special water additives, and some of these caused his golden scales to fall off, leaving his body with only a few gold spots. By the time of his final illness, a struggle with furunculosis, he had no gold scales at all, but was entirely albino white.

I sometimes joked that Chili II was big enough to make a good meal for our family of four, and if he ever died, we should just fry him up for dinner as I used to do with the bass and catfish I caught in the creeks and lakes of Texas when I was a kid. But I knew we could never eat Chili. And so, now that his time has come, I just put him in a plastic bag and dropped him in the garbage. No sentimental funeral or backyard burial this time. For one thing, it was raining constantly that week. For another, our dog would probably just dig up the carcass and eat it if she smelled it (and she has a very keen sense of smell). And finally, our children are mature teenagers now and while they both displayed different emotional reactions to the death of Chili, they didn’t feel it necessary to write painful eulogies or ceremoniously put the creature to rest in a traditional grave. Nathan assisted me as I cleaned the tank one last time, and helped me carry it out to the backyard to empty the last of its liquid contents onto the grass. All he could say was that it stank worse than anything he’s ever smelled before.

So Chili II is gone, and I guess I miss him. I don’t miss all the work involved in maintaining the aquarium, but I do miss him. He was a part of our family for almost half of Alex’s entire life, and more than half of Nathan’s. All of our friends who have assumed ownership of goldfish from that same 1996 event and similar ones over the years have often remarked about how amazed they are that Chili lived so long while other goldfish died

“Facts from http://www.goldfishinfo.com: The oldest living Goldfish to date was a goldfish named Tish owned by Hilda and Gordon Hand of Thirsk, N. Yorkshire, England. Tish lived for 43 years after being won at a fairground in 1956.

“Goldfish can have life spans up to 20+ years if they are fed a varied diet and housed in exceptional water conditions. They need to be in tanks that are not overcrowded. They need sufficient swimming room and do best if they are kept with their own types.”

I suppose then that Chili could have survived even longer if we had continued to buy larger and larger tanks for him and continued to maintain his environment. But our home is only so big, we don’t have a Koi pond and we can only afford to maintain a 20 gallon tank without contracting the maintenance work out to Deuce Bigalow.

Rest in Peace, Chili II. At least we still have our dog.

The week we lost Chili was the week we gained a new member of the family. Alex’s girlfriend, Briana, moved in with us the day we cleaned Chili’s tank for the last time. Briana is a wonderful girl and I’m very happy for both of them. Alex proposed to her the week before Christmas. Yes, they agree that they are too young to get married, so they plan a very long engagement and promise to wait until they both graduate from college to formalize the arrangement. I am encouraging them to do what Pam and I have done, and live in sin together for at least 20 years before getting married, but Alex is a traditional kind of guy and was encouraging us to get married for at least the last 10 years.

If I failed to mention it earlier, Pam and I finally got married on May 1, 2005, the 20th anniversary of the day we moved in together. Yeah, we’re now legal, thanks to George W. Bush and his tax cuts which have finally made it advantageous for married couples to file taxes jointly, rather than separately. The previous tax code rewarded single, unwed mothers with dependent minor children bigger tax credits than married couples with the same number of children, so we have never before filed our taxes this way, but now the laws have changed so we can actually save money by being married. It also makes things easier when dealing with our mortgage. A married couple has more legal rights in property law than tenants in common, which was the category under which we obtained our mortgage. It’s complicated, but under California law, if one of the “tenants in common” dies before the other, 50% of our home’s value would be re-assessed by the County Tax Assessor at pre-Proposition 13 levels. This would result in a whopping increase in our annual property taxes. As a married couple, however, the property would not be re-assessed in the event of the death of a spouse. This is a major reason to support the legalization of same-sex marriage in California and all other states, for that matter. Why are married couples treated differently than people in a committed, long-term relationship? If all the advantages are given to married couples, why then are gay couples denied these rights?

I’m a firm believer in treating all people equally, but our laws do not seem to follow this same principal. That’s why I’m committed to doing whatever I can to change the laws to make them more fair and less discriminatory. It is, however, an uphill battle.

Mailing Comments:

Having misplaced my copy of #177, all I have at hand is #176, which will have to suffice, since I’m once again pushing up against the deadline.

The Biscuit’s Own Paper (Julianne Chatelaine): Your explanation of the Karelians of Finland and their tragic history was fascinating, especially how you tied it all to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. There is so much of history that falls through the cracks that we in the west never learn about. Your “digression” about it was the first I ever heard Karelia. Thanks!
Heather Havrilesky’s columns were also great reading, and well worth subscribing to Salon. Her past life with suck.com was of great interest to me, since I used to read that site regularly and was deeply saddened when it died. Last year, I met Tim Cavanaugh, who also used to work on suck.com, and is now the on-line editor of Reason.com. They were definitely internet pioneers.

Willy G. & Me (Jimmy Dean): Loved reading about the NHRA Nationals. When I was a kid, my dad used to take us to the Amarillo Dragway in the Texas Panhandle to watch the drag races. He helped maintain a dragster for a local racing team, and sometimes got us pit passes so we could hang out with the other teams and meet the drivers. I was so young back then that I can’t remember many of them now, but I do remember meeting Big Daddy Don Garlitz.
Sometimes we traveled to other drag strips in Texas and Oklahoma with the team, and once we spent a weekend at an old abandoned air force runway that had been leased by a drag racing promoter. It was way out in the middle of nowhere, but they managed to attract a fairly large crowd, but the place wasn’t really set up for drag racing. It was hot and the food was pretty minimal (just hot dogs, popcorn and soda for us kids, beer for the adults). They put boards up on barrels for us to sit on instead of bleachers and there were portable toilets down the road, but the main drawback was the track itself. All the drivers complained about how bad the runway was maintained, and it made for a lousy drag strip.
I like the output of your zine from the free HP Color Laserjet, but it must have taken hours to print. One of the real drawbacks of the older HP model color printers is how slow they are. You also mentioned that they are expensive to maintain. I have to agree, and it is almost more economical to simply junk a broken Laserjet 4500 or 4550 and just buy a new one for less money than these cost when they were new. I’m personally very fond of the Ricoh/Savin brand of color printers, which not only generate much faster output than most H-P models, they cost a lot less to maintain and the consumables (toner, drum, finisher modules) are cheaper as well. Hewlett-Packard uses the old razor-blade technique of selling their printers at very low profit margin and making the bulk of their money from toner sales over the life of the machine.

Brahma’s Breath (Jim Bodie): Public schools in the South also taught us about the horrors of reconstruction after the civil war, how “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” from the North came down to exploit the defeated citizens of the confederacy. In fact, many historians now are re-examining this period and revealing that these terms were coined not by the Southerners who were exploited, but were invented by the folks who wrote the textbooks being sold to school districts in these states.
The modern public school system has been used as a propaganda tool for at least 100 years, and it didn’t start with the Scopes Monkey trial. The history of the Pledge of Allegiance is a fascinating story of how a clever Baptist minister and his publisher cousin came up with a scheme to make millions of dollars from the public school system by selling Old Glory flags to every school in the country through their magazine, Youth’s Companion (a predecessor of the Weekly Reader), and they simply used the Pledge as a way to incorporate their sales pitch into the curriculum of the educational establishment. And sell more flags. Sixty-five years later, so many people had memorized the Pledge through daily school indoctrination that the American Legion lobbied Congress to not only make it an official document of our government, but added the words “under God” to the middle of it. And it has taken this long for someone to finally stand up and question the constitutionality of this poem and its place in our history.
So I’m a bit surprised that you still put so much faith in the public school system, even though all the metrics in use to assess the results of this system for the past forty years indicate that it is a colossal failure. The last time the public school system showed any demonstrable success was after Sputnik lit a bonfire under the establishment and caused a massive effort to improve science education and research.
I could go on and on about the public schools and public school teachers (with whom I regularly play poker these days), but I’ll spare you the sermon. They just don’t work, and the teachers are the first to admit it (at least the ones who are candid enough to talk about how much they hate the teachers union, but love the wages and benefits they’ve negotiated). The best way to improve public schools would be to make them compete for students and funding with private schools. As it is, while they constantly bemoan their lack of funding and resources, they have an unlimited source of money from the taxpayers, who almost always vote to increase their own taxes “for the sake of their children.” And the more money we throw down the public school black hole, the worse things get. But I promised not to go on and on.
You know my Libertarian leanings already, so I won’t say too much about the democrats you proudly support. I will only mention that the current bloody disaster in Iraq could have been prevented if as few as a dozen Democratic politicians had the balls to speak up and say this was a bad idea before it ever happened. The only one who voted against giving George W. Bush the absolute power to wage whatever war he wanted was Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who demonstrated more balls and a bigger mouth than any of her blowhard male Democrat colleagues. I disagree with her on just about everything she does, but I have to say I was never more proud of her than when she cast that one dissenting vote.
The fact that we now live in a police state with the government spying on innocent citizens without warrants or even reasonable cause, torturing and killing prisoners in foreign lands without ever allowing them to go to trial, and making the nightmare world of George Orwell a reality is largely the fault of spineless Democratic politicians who were afraid to speak up and object to what they knew was going on.
With the latest revelations of what George W. Bush has done to destroy the country, it’s all I can do to keep my temper under control. I can’t trust Democrats to protect my few remaining freedoms, so I’m left with my Libertarian colleagues who won’t compromise their principles for money. But we don’t have enough support to make any difference in Washington. There is no longer a balance of power in the government, and now that it is almost certain that Alito will be confirmed, we’ve got another sycophantic brown-nosing liar on the bench who will continue to let our country slide into the totalitarian nightmare.
Alito padded his resume to get a job in the Reagan administration, and now asks us to believe he is honest and trustworthy enough to sit on the Supreme Court. And he’s going to get away with it, too.
See, now you went and got me started after all.