Friday, August 27, 2010

Playing in the Band

In the 4th grade, a crush on the cutest girl in the class prompted me to ask my parents for piano lessons. She too played the piano, and it was my hope that I might be able to use our common interest as a means to make a connection with her. It wasn't a bad idea really, but I now know that all I needed to know was man up and tell her that I "liked" her and that probably would have been enough. But that is the subject for another post.

As it turned out, I had a natural aptitude for music. I learned to read sheet music quickly, and competently performed both classical and modern pieces. I was able to learn songs or concertos I found interesting in a fraction of the time it would take me to learn something I had never heard before. I know this sounds obvious and logical... but the difference was huge. For some reason I had already heard a lot of Beethoven and therefore was able to play many of his piano compositions within days... where as I had not heard much Handel, or Chopin , and it would take me weeks or months to figure out. This would be one of the earlier signs of ADHD that was mostly ignored until later in my life. As electronic music and synthesizers gained popularity, I started becoming more interested in imitating newer styles rather than focus on the classics. For some reasons alot of the sheet music available at the piano store were movie and TV theme songs. I found myself playing the themes from "Cheers", "The Pink Panther", "James Bond", "St. Elmo's Fire", "Live and let Die", and "St. Elsewhere" among many others. At one recital, in between butchered versions of "Fur Elise" and "Canon in D", I broke out my Yamaha synthesizer and played "Axel F" - the theme from Beverly Hills Cop complete with the prerecorded drum mix and accompanying tracks. My father told me later I successfully brought three and half minutes of toe tapping enjoyment to a room full of comatose parents and petrified children.

A few years later I became friends with a kid from around the block named Kevin Baucom, who happened to play the drums. Another friend of ours, Ben Steele, played the guitar and sang. I had a pretty decent Casio synthesizer, so I brought it over and we formed a little band in his garage. In the 6th and 7th grade, "The Albino Fishermen" performed heinously ridiculous offerings like "Dead Squirrel Song" and "Kid in a fridge". The chord progressions were basic, the timing all the same 4/4 metronome, and the lyrics were stupid and meaningless. Another friend of ours, Dave Merritt, was feeling left out so he decided to get a guitar for Christmas and join the noise...despite the fact that we really probably needed a bass player more than a second guitarist.

It was the early 90's and the heyday of the grunge scene. Keyboards were not as prevalent in the popular music, so I got a bass guitar and learned to play it almost overnight. It was a much simpler instrument and I made the transition easily. I started encouraging the band to play covers, as I was greatly embarrassed by the immaturity of Ben's lyrics. I thought it was going to be hard to impress chicks with verses like "I was driving down the street, when all of a sudden I smelled my feet..." So we learned some Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, the Cure, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Lemonheads, Rage against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, and continued to write a few songs ourselves that we mixed in. Ben ended up moving away to Indiana. We changed our name to "Carne", I took over singing, and we continued with just the three of us.

After a few years of practice, we actually developed a "sound" that was tolerable enough to actually get us some gigs... at what limited venues were available for a rock trio of high school kids. So it was house parties, battle of the bands, college fraternity parties, and a few small clubs that either ignored liquor laws or thought that we were old enough to play in a bar. I had my heart broken for the first time, started experimenting with pot, and consequently started to write and perform some music that had actual meaning. With inspiration we became a much better band, and even had a small following of friends and classmates. After listening to myself in a few recordings, I came to terms with my limited vocal range and stopped trying to perform covers that my voice couldn't handle. Towards our senior year of high school we were playing gigs where the music was 80% ours, and some of it sounded really good. Today, I still grab the guitar play a few of the songs from back then with fond memories.

After graduation Dave and I headed up to Radford University and roomed together freshmen year. Kevin was 30 minutes across the valley at Virginia Tech. Kevin's older brother was a couple years ahead of us and attending Tech as well, so he hooked us up with a practice space. ON weekends we continued to practice and play gigs. We improved and matured and gradually morphed into a musically gifted act. We were on the verge of finding a lead singer (I finally acquiesced and admitted that I was very limited in my singing capabilities) We had enough material and money. and looked to book some time in an actual recording studio. But it all ended suddenly, when Dave decided to return to Virginia Beach and the girl he left behind. Kevin remained at Virginia Tech, and I at Radford. We didn't look for a replacement for Dave. The growing amount of activity in the rest of our lives took over and the band dissolved. Kevin played a few gigs here and there with some other guys. I played the bass for 6 months in a Sublime-Cover act called "Badfish", but life was too hectic to put the requisite amount of energy back into a real working effort. My cover band broke up when the lead guitarist flunked out. The rest of my extra-curricular activities took up the my time....

...And just like that, my band days were over.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Anger Management Part 2

When a friend has the balls to tell you that you are acting like an asshole... recognize how much they must care about you to say so. It takes an enormous amount of emotional energy to confront a friend. It also takes patience. They can anticipate that however delicately delivered their message might be, it is likely to be initially rejected. It natural to dismiss pointed statements as hyper-judgmental and coming from a perspective of superiority. A common response is to instantly criticize the source and search for evidence of hypocrisy. But doing so only subverts the true purpose and meaning of the act... which is: That they care enough to enter into a painstaking process in the hope that, after your initial resistance fades, you will hear their message. In essence, they are showing they believe you have the maturity and intelligence to accept and consider their feedback. They like you enough to sacrifice their time and energy towards helping you make a positive change. I think its commonly referred to as "tough love".

It's not an easy thing to swallow your pride when someone openly calls your behavior into question. But if the motivation is sincere, that sort of communication should be welcomed. This is something it took me a very long time to learn. Yes... opening yourself up to criticism can be a double edged sword. You may receive some undeserved blame that you would not otherwise... but I still think the overall benefit outweighs the sacrifice. You have to take to bad with the good. A second benefit of this whole process is recognizing your true friends.

My last entry was not an excuse to remove myself from blame. It was not a long winded way of saying "It's my parents fault that I sometimes act this way..." or "I was just unlucky in my surroundings and genetic pre-disposition. That's why I can be jerk at times." In the end we all have a choices. And while our choices may be heavily influenced by the aforementioned factors... they are still ours to make. But through recognizing the reasons why we have developed certain reflexes, and how we have been conditioned to respond in certain situations... it helps us to identify the triggers, and to take preventative action... with the end result being a shift in reaction. This is the basis for behavior modification.

There is a whole series of books "Don't sweat the small stuff (and its all small stuff)". This has commonly been my problem. By the Freudian definition , I can easily be classified as anal-retentive for the classical reasons outlined in the definition. When little things go wrong I have reacted poorly. Conversely, I am at my best in catastrophic situations. Traffic on the freeway making me late for a meeting = freakout. Arrested for DUI = calm and accepting. Lost my phone = Defcon 1. Lost a relative = calm and accepting. The washer machine breaking and leaking water onto the carpet = Nuclear meltdown. Outbreak of war = calm and accepting.

Suffice to say, this strange outlook has cost me. I've lost friends, significant others, and professional relationships... mostly because the energy required to manage the relationship was too much. I exhausted people. In the very same way that my mother imposed a general anxiety even when not present... the very possibility that I might fly off the handle at any moment puts people on edge... even if that moment never comes.

So, having recognized this shortcoming, with the very much appreciated help of people around me (you know who you are)I have implemented the use of tools. This blog is one such tool. It's the chronicles of efforts towards become a better person. Others are more simple. Sometimes I wear a rubber band around my wrist and snap it whenever I feel myself "heating up"... a simple Pavlovian conditioning method. Conscious breathing and meditation also work for me. My ADHD medication also helps keep me focused. There are others, but they all serve the same purpose... to a achieve balance.

It's working. :)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anger Management

As to avoid diverging into a theological discussion about nature vs nurture, let's assume for the purposes of this post that both forces play an integral part in shaping us into the people we become. Would I yell and scream and throw temper tantrums if I hadn't observed that behavior somewhere along the line? there certainly are genetic factors involved. However, it's more likely that my reactions are a conditioned reflex... a learned method of dealing with intense emotion...and a product of my upbringing and environment.

In my particular case, I was described by my parents and siblings as an extremely relaxed infant and toddler. I was mostly pleasant and almost never cried. However, I was raised in an environment of argumentation and confrontation. It was just how things were most days. Someone yelled at someone. There was usually some form of shouting, crying, hitting... something. High stress was just the way of life. It became so normal that we created routines to repeatedly act out. As a random example... My mother was obsessive about the house being clean. It drove everyone insane. She would walk in to the house upon returning home from work and instantly start complaining. No exaggeration... It was instantaneous. "Oh my god this house is FILTHY! It looks like a BOMB hit it!" Her idea of filthy varied greatly from most everyone else's. Suffice to say, it got to the point that it was impossible to relax in the house. The anticipation her coming home and freaking out created anxiety long before the inevitable event occurred. One was afraid to set down a glass or a plate for even a moment. There were rooms that we never even walked into lest we leave some evidence of our trespass.

As a teenager, I began to analyze this behavior and compare it to that of other families. I realized ours was far from an oppressive living environment, yet still not what I would consider normal. I mouthed off to my mother one day and said something along the lines of, "I could spend all afternoon scrubbing this place and you would still find something wrong with it." She disagreed. I decided to back up my words and I began to conduct experiments to satisfy my own morbid curiousity. On several different occasions I came home from school in the afternoon, got high, and started cleaning furiously for the next 3 hours. I found the manual labor to be that much less soul-crushing when I was stoned. I would focus on the kitchen and eating area, which was the entryway to the home from the garage. It was amusing for me to clean everything, and then sit back and observe as my mother would come home and launch into her machinations... only to slowly realize that the house wasn't as "filthy" as she expected/wanted it to be. She could tell that I had obviously cleaned, but invariably she managed to find fault with the "way" I had done it. Maybe I put a pot in the drying rack, instead of toweling it dry... and since it was stainless steel surely there would be water spots, so i would have to do it again. Heaven forbid there be water spots on the outside of a pot while you boiled water in it. Or maybe I had not dusted the curtains before vacuuming...something she would have no way of knowing unless she asked and I answered honestly. If somehow I had managed to mostly get it right she would simply walk through the cleanest areas and into another part of the house until she found something out of place or unclean so she could express her disapproval. Its strange the routines that people choose. Its strange how we can be more comfortable with something to be upset about than when theres nothing amiss... just because we have gotten so used to it being that way. Often enough the timing worked out that my mother would be in full battle mode by the time that my father got home. He would lose his patience quickly (definte genetic influence) and tell her to relax in an irritated and condescending manner. Then the fireworks would begin. It would be very unusual for that not to spill onto the children in some way.

Going forward, the rest of us... my brother, sister, and myself... certainly dealt with irritations, problems, inconveniences, etc. in the same general manner. The procedure when confronted with an obstacle seemed to be 1)Curse and throw or hit something 2)Go about trying to figure out a way to fix it.

Don't get me wrong. We had plenty of good times, and it was certainly not a prison sentence growing up in our household. My parents did a great job. And when everyone did relax, we could have a very fun time. But to be perfectly honest, it was a rare occasion that the entire family could do anything together without at least one major arguement/blowup/dramatic incident. It was just how we operated within the group.

I began to avoid being at home. I would often spend the night at a friend's house on the weekends... and most afternoons were with after school activites, or hanging out with friends either outside or at their homes. Nonetheless, I was at home enough of time for the atmosphere to shape my rapidly changing personality.

Even after I left home for the first time, my already exisisting inclination towards confrontational behavior was only bolstered by my involvment with my college fraternity. Screaming at pledges was normal. Screaming at other members was normal. Freaking out was normal. It was so normal, that one might not think you were passionate about something if you failed to raise your voice or drop in a few F bombs. I became president of that organization and did my fair share of issuing passionate statements. It was basically my job. I was in a position of authority, and people often looked to me for the answers. I had to be emphatic and confident in my decisions. I learned that in order to convey the importance of my message it usually had to have a threatening or menacing tone.

I carried this mentality into the workplace. When things went wrong I started yelling. If people didn't listen to me I just yelled louder. If they still didn't get it I just stopped talking to them altogther. A similar procedure would be used for inanimate objects. If something didnt work right, and I failed to fix it after repeated attempts... I might just smash it to bits. Now its destroyed... gotta get a new one. Problem solved.

Unhealthy? Hell yes.

Before I could even set about modifying my beavior I had to realize there was something wrong with it. That doesn't come as easily as it might sound. It requires a removal of pride, an admission of wrong-doing, and the courage to change. But before any of that can occur, it has to be brought to my attention.

More next time about the people that cared enough to tell me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rear-view Mirror

I can recall going through "down" periods even as a very young early as 3 years old. My parents would see that I was very quiet and somber and often ask me, "What's the matter?" I didn't have the ability at that age to articulate it. I would not be able to convey much more than, "I don't know...I just feel sad." I was also (and still am to a large extent) very shy. As long as I can remember, I've mostly felt out of place...that I don't belong. More often than not, I feel uncomfortable unless in familiar surroundings and around people with whom I am close and have grown to trust.

This was problematic as the son of a Marine Corps aviator. Our family moved a lot when I was very young, as he was transferred cross-country for different assignments. At 2, we moved from Monterrey CA to Virginia Beach, VA. At age 5 we moved to Irvine, CA. At age 8, we moved back to Virginia Beach. I can only assume that having these moves occur during my developmental years has manifested itself in my personality traits. My natural shyness had to be overcome since I found myself in new places trying to make new friends so often. I compensated by acting out... getting into trouble... attracting attention to myself. I became the class clown. All throughout elementary and high school and even into later years, I would seek out mischief despite a mostly disciplined upbringing: A continuation of this learned behavior. But throughout it all, those periods of unfocused sadness would still come around. I remember one fall being so out of it that I completely forgot I was on a baseball team. I only remembered when I opened a seldom used drawer and saw the uniform there... brand new.

Exhibiting signs of manic-depression did not prompt my parents to seek any sort of psychological counseling that I can recall. And that wasn't abnormal. We were raised in a different time by parents that both came from a more traditional background. The kind where if you have a problem you just "deal with it". I think it was still a time when people were afraid to go to a shrink lest everyone hear about it and start rumors that they were insane. Not many people were really aware or educated about attention deficit disorder until I was already in college. Even then it carried a negative stigma with it... perpetuated by people like my parents. We would see a story on the news about it, and my parents would say something along the lines of "That's the problem with America these days. Everyone is making excuses for themselves. No one wants to work to solve their problems, so they just medicate their children..." and so on and so forth. What they said made sense to me. After all, there were high incidences of mis-diagnosis and abuse of the prescription medications. I remember automatically thinking ill of people I met that took meds to cope with what I had been taught were imaginary illnesses. I thought that they were "just lazy", and that taking Ritalin was a cop out. Perhaps it was this disdain that allowed me to ignore the attention deficit, manic-depressive, and obsessive-compulsive traits that I had exhibited throughout my entire life.

It wasn't until I was in my late 20's that I began to think maybe there was something abnormal about the way my brain worked. At work I found myself unable to stay with a task for more than minutes at a time. I would start multiple projects before finishing others as a way to constantly keep busy yet never be working on the same thing for too long. Some people even mentioned that they believed I might have ADHD. At first I just dismissed it... figuring they were too quick to put labels on things. Then I began to educate myself on the subject. I began to think that maybe I had some related condition.. some sort of "adult onset" version...since I couldn't recall having these problems when I was young. As I continued to educate myself about the condition, I realized the signs have been present all along... it just had't been enough of an obstacle for me to really examine closely it until now. One by one, memories of situations from my past came back to me, and all the pieces began to fall into place. I was 30 years old when I had this moment of realization. I was somewhat disappointed that it had taken me this long to stop and take the time to much more closely examine myself. A long period of introspection followed that continues today and throughout the rest of my foreseeable life. There have been countless revelations, epiphanies, setbacks and complications. It wasn't until I was 32 that I finally sought out professional help. There was no level of ambiguity in the eyes of my physician. His diagnosis was fairly emphatic. ADHD with associative symptoms of manic-depression and OCD. These disorders are the result of chemical deficiencies in my brain...something that has been present since birth. I combat these issues now using a combination of psychotherapy and medication... of which the "cocktail" is till being fine-tuned.

The improvement to my overall quality of life has been dramatic. I liken it to a paraplegic finally obtaining the use of a wheelchair rather than dragging himself across the floor. So many things continue to be explained and corrected... And while the differences in some areas of my life are like night and day... there are others that will improve more slowly. I will continue to take time to work on these things. But, its like having painted a mural in the dark for so long, and finally having the light turned on.

Better living through chemistry

FDA Approves Depressant Drug For The Annoyingly Cheerful

Monday, August 9, 2010

Let no good deed go unpunished

With the aid of a few coaches, some videos, and lots of hours in the batting cage, I managed to develop a swing. I wasn't a huge kid, but I learned to make good contact with the ball. I was never going to be fantastic, but at least I wasn't relegated to bunting or striking out.

In the 8th grade I went out for the JV baseball team at school. Most of the kids knew me, but the coaches hadn't seen me at all because I hadn't bothered trying out in 7th grade. I didn't really look the part of a baseball player. I had hardly anything in the way of equipment. I had a glove and cleats, but everything else had always been provided by the team, uniforms included. So, I had to borrow a bat from a friend. I wore jeans instead of baseball pants. I wore an suicidal tendencies t-shirt, not a jersey like the other kids. I definitely looked out of place.

The coaches didn't bother asking me what position I played... they just put me in right field. Right field is generally where they put the worst kid on the team. The idea is that he can't screw up too much out there since he won't have too many balls hit his way. But, as it turned out there were quite a few left-handed batters in tryouts that year, so I saw plenty of balls. I was able to showcase my speed and my arm. On one very shallow blooper, I threw out a runner at first base. Ok, so he was fat and slow... but still, I threw a guy out at first from the outfield. At the plate I went 1 for 3, with a strikeout, a deep fly to center, and a double. I made the first round of cuts and came back the next day.

The coach asked me to play center field on the second day of tryouts, presumably because he figured I covered more ground than the other outfielders. I saw this as a big thing... moving me out of the dreaded "right field". This gave me some added confidence that showed at the plate. I went 2 for 3, with a strikeout, a double, a base hit, and also walked once. I stole second on the walk. I was ecstatic. All the hard work over the winter had paid off. I was going to make the team for sure. How could I not? I had hit 2 doubles, 1 single, and a stolen base. And threw out a guy at first from the outfield!

Sure enough, I did make the second round of cuts, which was normally the last one. But I learned that there was going to be a third cut. They had to get rid of two more guys. Of those remaining, there were only 5 guys that weren't on the team from last year. 2 of those guys were considered to be a shoe in. One because he was a phenomenal pitcher, and the other because he is the little brother of the team's star player... but a very good ball player in his own right. So in actuality, there were really only 3 possible people that could get cut. Me: a relative unknown that was playing great, but certainly didn't look or act the part. Jon Vann: a football player that didn't seem to have much baseball skill. Lex Sheriff: A 7th grade up-and-coming athlete. He played basketball, football, baseball, and was on the wrestling team. I knew Lex and had played with him in the Pony-Colt leagues. He was good. He had timing, coordination, and good athletic ability. He was also a good guy that I considered a friend. He was having a horrible tryout though. He was hitless, striking out almost every at bat. He was trying out for pitcher, and had been getting rocked. After talking to him, he seemed pretty dejected. I think there was a lot of pressure on him and he was a bundle of nerves. One of us three would make it, the other two were out.

On the third day of tryouts, I had another hit and another stolen base. I played left field this third position in as many days. What was really strange was that the coach asked me to play 3rd base. I told him I had no experience at 3rd. He seemed disappointed that I would turn down the offer... and then he said, "Okay go play left then." I thought it was weird that suddenly he would ask me to play the infield. Out in left, I had a few fly balls and grounders. Then Lex came to the plate. He was something like 0 for 12 going into this at-bat. The pitcher, a guy we both knew, slowed his delivery down a bit. I knew he was just giving Lex a chance to finally get a hit. Lex swung hard and got under the first pitch...fouled back. Then on the next one he lifted it. It was definitely going over the third baseman's head, but it was spinning blooper and really shallow. I charged hard but I wasn't going to get to it...unless maybe I dove headfirst...and even then it was unlikely. I checked up, as I think anyone else would do, took it off of one hop and tossed to second. Lex finally had a hit. I smiled for him.

About 30 minutes later, as we came into the dugout, the coach was all fired up about something. He was sort of yelling at everyone and no one in particular as he paced back and forth. Something about slacking... not running hard... and then as I got within earshot, I caught his quick gaze and it came, "If I EVER see anyone let a fly ball drop, I will run you until you all until you throw up!" Ba dump bump. I just sort of smiled incredulously and shook my head. Unbelievable.

As young as I was, I could still recognize this cowardly passive-aggressive bullshit. It was the typical politics. The coach was in a tough spot. He had this nobody kid who was playing great... and he had this big name kid that was playing awful. It was then that I realized what was going on. The third cut was all just a dog and pony show. He needed to find a reason and I gave him exactly what he needed on that blooper. I think if I had dove for it and cracked my face open if it wouldn't have made any difference. That's why he tried to get me to play third. He had the guy that was supposed to be an all star, and he had the raggedy kid that didn't even have his own bat. The yelling shit in the dugout was all for my benefit and the anyone else within earshot. We all knew there was no way Vann was gonna make it ,he had an awful tryout too. He only brought that poor guy back the third day so it wouldn't be too obvious when he cut me.

I saw Lex in the parking lot and congratulated him. I meant it too. He also knew what was up. "Sorry Greg, you played great. It's not really fair." He was a good guy. "That's ok...thanks." I knew that it meant more to him than it did to me, so I wasn't really that pissed. Plus, I knew that he probably would play better all season than I would. My tryout was kind of a fluke... to be perfectly honest. But it was the concept of bringing us all out the next day for this whole charade... and yelling at a kid that hit .500. Lame.

The cut list came out the next day. Sure enough. I think it was that moment that I stopped giving a shit about sports.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My late introduction to American sports

At the age when a lot of kids were playing T-ball or getting ready for peewee football, I was playing soccer and riding horses. I got started with both in Irvine, CA right around kindergarten. I kept up with both for awhile but eventually the horse shows would interfere with the soccer games, and I had to choose one or the other. It's not that I didn't like riding... I just didn't derive much satisfaction from the competitions. We got little ribbons for trotting old nags in a circle around a corral. I didn't understand the appeal. So, I still went out and rode the horses on trail rides for fun, but chose to go with soccer for competition.

The AYSO was the governing organization in Southern California and very popular. There were teams at all levels and games every weekend. Some of the teams I was on include the "Red Hot Chili Peppers", the "The B-52's", even the "Blue Mondays" (our coach was a total 80's emo guy). Now, in the beginning, there wasn't much in the way of tactical strategy. Boys and girls would run onto the field and bunch together in what looked like a rugby scrum, and kick frantically at the ball until it eventually popped out. The swarm would then run after it and repeat this until, hopefully, the ball would find its way into one of the goals.

When we moved to Virginia Beach in 1986, I continued to play soccer there. The leagues were organized differently into rec, advanced, and select leagues. I made the advanced team for my area in the 4th grade, and then moved up to play select in 5th and 6th grade. We traveled around to other cities and played their select teams. I played a variety of positions over the years, but mostly goalkeeper and forward. I preferred the former because I liked the uniqueness of the position, but coaches were insistent about playing me at forward because I was a very fast. I proved to be more of an asset on offense. In addition to my speed, I was one of few players that could pass proficiently at that level. I ended both seasons leading the league in assists.

As I got older, soccer wasn't quite as popular with my friends. They were way more excited about baseball and football. With pressure to fit in, I decided to try them both. Regrettably, I eventually had to give up soccer to do so. I wish I had stuck with it... but c'est la vie. Now, heres the thing... I had athletic ability, but almost ZERO knowledge about the games themselves. I knew nothing about strategy or technique, in either arena. The coaches were there to teach us some stuff, but by the time I started playing, most of these kids had learned the basics already. I had no such experience. I had to learn from scratch how to throw and catch and hit... in both games. I did so quickly, but I still lacked the awareness to know what to do in specific game situations. I was just kind of daft when it came to these games.

For example: At football tryouts I was recognized immediately for my speed. I ran the sprints faster than anybody. They tried me at wide receiver, but I couldn't catch well enough with all the equipment on, nor could I understand timing patterns, or how to create diversions or block on running plays. Often I would ignore the play call and just run a deep fly because I knew I was faster and could get open. I didn't understand that quarterbacks at this level could not even throw the deep ball... much less have the awareness to see I was open and that I had called my own audible and decided to go for the end zone. I was just daft. So they put me at running back. They explained the plays to me...and where I was supposed to run when they handed me the ball. OK, I think I can handle this. What I did not comprehend was that if the "hole" I was supposed to run through wasn't open, that I was supposed to improvise...change directions...find a way to get upfield. I just didn't get it. I would mostly get tackled at or near the line of scrimmage. And on plays where I did not get the ball, I didn't understand that I was supposed to block. After a few weeks at running back, the coaches gave up and moved me to defense. They started me in the secondary, usually as safety, again hoping to capitalize on my speed. This worked better, as I understood I was supposed hit the guy with the ball. I did become proficient at hitting. I learned to tackle the proper way, by lowering the shoulder, driving with my legs, keeping low, wrapping my arms around their legs, and lifting to take them off their feet. In practice the coaches screamed and yelled at us to hit as hard as we could. It resonated with me and I did that every play. I can remember hearing the groan and feeling the air go out of a kid's lungs when I would level him in the open field. I always felt so bad for him. I would get up and ask him if he was ok after I hit him... and then offer a hand to help him up. I wasn't taunting... I was truly concerned. My teammates made fun of me and called me "Care Bear" because I seemed to feel the pain of everyone. But playing the secondary didn't work out that great either because I had no clue what to do when it came to adapting or improvising on the fly. I didn't know how to shift coverages in zone defenses, or when to drop back, when to blitz, etc. I would blow my coverage often. I would bite on fakes often. I just didn't understand the nuances of the game. My father seemed to see this and suggested a position change to my coach. By the 8th grade they moved me to the defensive line and gave me a simple which I already knew well: "Hit the guy with the ball. Hit him as hard as you can." I could do that. I did it really well and it worked out for awhile. Then in one game, the O-lineman that was supposed to pull and block me screwed up and left a gaping hole where I was lined up. I ran straight into the back field untouched. It was a pass play and the QB was standing in the pocket waiting to throw. He was a lefty and did not see me coming as I ran straight towards his turned back. I lowered my shoulder and launched myself at him. There it was... that unmistakable "ughhhhhhhhh" as all the air was forced from his lungs. I heard and felt the bones break as the weight of his body and mine crushed his arm and shoulder into the helmet of another player on the ground. He lost the ball when I hit him and one of my teammates picked it up and ran it back for a touchdown. The crowd was going nuts but all I could hear was the sound of this kid gasping for air. I laid there on the ground with him asking him if he was ok... telling him I was so sorry... and then he just let loose this guttural moan that I can still hear. There was foam coming from his mouth and snot all over his nose. The tears poured from his eyes. The refs pulled me off and sent me back to the sidelines, and I started sobbing uncontrollably. I was so upset that I didn't want to play the second half. I left the field and went to call my Dad to take me home. I skipped practice all week and the next game. My Dad talked to me about it and made me feel better. I came back and played the next week, but I knew it was my last season. I did not like how I felt when I hurt someone, and could not understand how everyone else thought I was crazy for feeling that way.

I was playing baseball during the same period of years as well. I started out in 5th grade in the Virginia Beach "Pony-Colt" baseball league. Once again I was the fastest guy on the team. I also found out that I could throw very hard. Outfield was the natural choice. They did try me at third base because of my arm, but it was apparent that that I was clueless when it came to where to throw the ball with men on, how to cover other bases, where to play in the field against different hitters, how to check a runner back to second before throwing to first, etc. I was just an error waiting to happen in the infield. So I played left field mostly. Even then, I would screw things up. I would forget how many outs there were. I would get nervous and throw to the wrong base on a ground ball. I remember one particular game, I was playing too shallow in left. I should have been a bit deeper because their slugger was up and they had a man on third, but I just didn't understand these types of things. Sure enough, he absolutely crushes one. I see the ball right off the bat and know its going deep. I turn and take off on a dead sprint towards the wall. Just before the warning track I extend my arm across my body, reach as far as I can, and leap in a desperate attempt at getting to this uncatchable ball. This was dumb. Jumping ensures that I am going to fall and hit the ground. Then the ball is going to bounce of the fence, and I am going to have to get back on my feet and chase after it.... giving the batter another base. The smart play is to hold up and play the ball off the fence and maybe hold the batter to a single since I have a good arm. The man on third is going home anyways so there was no point in trying to save that run. I think I sort of realized this as I was in mid-air...but it was obviously too late. Then, by some miracle, I felt the ball hit the webbing of my glove. I had caught it. I landed on my upper-side/shoulder since I had to spin around to try and catch the ball. My rotation allowed me to kind of roll back up onto my feet very quickly. "MAN ON THIRD!" was all I could think of. I took a crow hop and fired an absolute missile towards home plate. The catcher did not even have to move. He stood there standing straight up. The ball hit his glove on the fly. That was when I noticed there was no runner. "Had he not tagged up? Had he scored already?" I thought. Then I see the catcher, Brian, shake his his head and casually roll the ball towards the mound. The rest of the team headed towards the dugout. I turned bright red as I realized there had been two outs and my catch had ended the inning. As I got back to the dugout, I hung my head as my teammates said, "Nice throw Kelley..." and "way to gun that guy out at home".

Hitting was hard for me. I had no background in it. I hadn't play T-ball. I hadn't played coach-pitch. I had only played some wiffle ball and pickup neighborhood games here and there...and we used a tennis ball for that so that we wouldn't break windows. I only started going to the batting cages after joining the rec league team. I had no idea how to read pitches, or deal with off-speed stuff. In short... I sucked. I struck out a lot. What I could do... was run. So the coach would often pull me aside before I went to bat and tell me to bunt. It worked often enough. They wouldn't be expecting it and I would run it out. And once on base I would always try to steal second if it was open. That worked often enough too. What I didn't realize is that if there were other guys on base... they had to know that I was going to bunt... and that's why you don't just decide to bunt on your own. I figured if I tried to hit and struck out... but got to first when I bunted... then I should bunt all the time. We would have a guy on first with no outs and I would just randomly through down a bunt. Of course the base runner wasn't ready and would just get thrown out at second...sometimes even a double play if I bunted it badly. I;m pretty sure the coaches told me not to bunt unless they said to... but I think I sort of ignored that and did it anyway. I was pretty dumb when it came to sports.

Eventually I learned this stuff. I also learned how to hit. My Dad started taking me to the batting cages almost every weeknight. By the time Junior Varsity tryouts came along, I could hit for power. More about that in another post entitled "Let no good deed go unpunished..."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"We're not finished crashing yet..."

Before things became hellish between the union and the company, KGTV was a great place to work. I started there in 2000 as a part-time employee and eventually landed myself a full-time job. In operations and Engineering we were represented by a union, and the contract that I was hired under was pretty good for the employee. We were given ample vacation and comp days, great overtime compensation, and even extra money for hazardous work, like flying in the helicopter.

I started going up in SKY10 in 2004. I had the unique position of working hours that fell between the two standard shifts. Often times I would one of the only people around during the day. So when something "big" was happening, I would often get called to run out to the helicopter pad and chase the story. My job was to operate the nose mounted camera, as well as mix the audio, and operate the microwave transmission equipment. It was a fun gig. I never had a problem dropping everything I was doing so that I could go fly.

It was just another day, and just another "breaking news" situation. I got the call and ran out to the pad where the pilot already had the engine going and the blades spinning. Also already on board was one of the fairly new female reporters. I don't even remember what the story was... probably another freeway chase or perhaps a brush fire flaring up somewhere. I hopped in the back, got my seat belt on, put on my headset and we lifted off.

The Station is located just off the 94 freeway east of downtown San Diego, and almost directly underneath the final approach to Lindbergh Field. It is well within the "Class B" controlled airspace, and as such, our departures and arrivals at the station are managed by the tower at the airport. However, often times it was difficult to get a transmission to the Lindbergh Tower from the ground at the station because of the close proximity to the building between us and the airport. It was common practice to lift off and hover in an air taxi and then request and await clearance from the tower. On nearly every occasion the communication between us and the tower would go something like this:

SKY10: "Lindbergh Tower, SKY10"
Lindbergh Tower: "Go ahead Sky 10."
SKY10: "We are just lifting off from the station, and would like to depart to the north along the 805"
LT: "SKY10, Inbound aircraft is a 737 at 5 miles. Report contact."
SKY10: "Yes I see the 737."
LT: "Maintain visual separation with that aircraft. Clear to depart the Class Bravo airspace to the north. Climb to 1000 ft and maintain heading 030. Good day."
SKY10: "SKY10"

There were always some variations, like maybe a different aircraft on approach, or we would be heading a different direction, but that's how it went 9 times out of 10. This day would be a bit different. As we lifted off the conversation started as normal, but this time the information given from the tower included this:

"SKY 10, aircraft just passing overhead is a Boeing 767. Caution: Wake turbulance..."

The next thing I knew I was almost falling out of the door. The camera control unit had fallen from my lap and hit the ceiling. This was due to the fact that the helicopter had spun nearly upside down. I had no time to comprehend what the hell was happening, but I could hear the reporter making a weird gutteral sound in the headset. She had dropped her leather-bound notepad and it had fallen into the backseat and was slapping me in the face as it got tossed around the cabin. I heard the engine whining at full throttle and the entire helicopter was rattling and shaking as the pilot attempted keep us righted and in the air. I didn't even have time to think about dying, I was too busy trying to figure out which way was up.

"SKY10 report your position!" said the ATC at Lindbergh.
Pilot: (as calm as a hindu cow) "I'll let you know in a second, we haven't finished crashing yet."

The reporter screamed. I heard the sound of car alarms going off. The helicopter stopped buffeting. I straightened up and looked out the window. We were hovering about 15 feet off the ground and directly above the parking lot of the TV station. There was a green Porsche close enough to spit on. We were at nearly 1000 ft a few seconds before this. The pilot slowly and gingerly guided the aircraft sideways and back over to the pad and set us down. He killed the engine immediately.

The reporter was hysterical. She was flailing about in an attempt to get her seat-belts off. The pilot tried to help her but she kind of slapped at his hands. She eventually freed herself, and bolted towards the building. She would admit to me later that she had peed herself.

"Holy shit, what happened?" I asked.
"We got caught in his wake . There was no way to know until we're already in it."
"Holy shit..." was all I could manage to say. Just then the assignment desk editor at the station hopped on the radio.

"SKY10 what's your ETA to the scene? We want to do a live cut-in"

He just reached up and turned off the radio. I called her on my phone a moment later to tell her there would be no live cut-in happening until we all got a change of underwear. I would later find out that we flew directly through one of the wingtip vortices of the 767. Its basically a swirling tunnels of air that is created as the wing creates lift. It had nearly flipped us completely upside down. Once a helicopter like that gets upside down its not a good thing. The pilot would also later tell me that had we been about 100 feet lower we would have crashed for sure.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Atlantic Shitty

Spring break generally happened in mid March at Radford. The weather in town was usually horrible around this time of year; Rainy...still pretty cold. Most people were from towns or cities nearby, so they would just go home for a week. My sophomore year I couldn't afford to fly home to San Diego or to go down to Panama City and party it up, so I just decided to hang out in town.

The town (city technically) of Radford is built around the University and its students. During breaks, the area is literally deserted, except for the locals and a few students like me that have nowhere to go. A few of my friends were in a similar situation, so we got together on the first Saturday preceding the week off to drink excessively and think up something fun to do. Somewhere between two and three sheets, I had the bright idea of driving us all up to Atlantic City. None of us had ever been. The idea was almost instantly agreed upon.

View Larger Map

I figured it would only take us 8 hours or so to get up there. It was the off season, so I found us a hotel room at the Trump Taj Mahal for $40 a night. I even got my parents to give me an early birthday present and deposit some money in my bank account... the balance of which was somewhere around $21 or so. The next morning me, Jason Hughes, Shane McBreen, and Mike Darling hopped into my Volkswagen and hit the road. I stopped at the ATM on the way out of town and withdrew the $300 my parents had given me; by far the largest cash gift I had ever received. The weight of the 15 bills felt good in my wallet.

Aside from traffic around the DC Beltway, we made pretty good time and rolled into Atlantic City at about 8 PM. When you exit the AC expressway onto Missouri Ave it looks like a nice town...for about a block or two. Then I took a left onto Atlantic Avenue, and saw what kind of neighborhood I was really in. There was a "Cash 4 Gold" sign on every block. Some had more than one. Most of these pawn shops were directly next to a liquor store and it wasn't uncommon to see someone exit the former and immediately enter the latter. There was literally a line of people waiting for soup in front of a Church, and every other block had men standing around empty oil barrels or trash cans that had been made into makeshift fire pits, warming their hands. I shifted my gaze up towards a large building in the distance. It looked like it had once been a resort hotel, but now was completely gutted. Most of the windows had been smashed. There were trash can fires burning on multiple levels of the 20 story building. People lived up there. I came to a stop at a red light and was instantly approached by a sketchy looking dude that had been milling around on the corner. I locked the doors. He saw this and was somehow offended by my precaution. "Fuck you whiteboy mothafucka!" as he went back to his corner. My guess is that he was 1) a pimp 2) a drug dealer 3) just looking for a handout.

"Atlantic Shitty," I said out loud. My friends laughed. It stuck. We referred to the town that way for the entire week, and even years to come. The weather was just as miserable here. It seemed evident that we would likely not leave the hotel for the duration of the trip. We got checked in and into our room. It seemed nice enough. I was anxious to hit the poker room, as I had heard this was the best place to play in town. The others went off to find some slot machines and blackjack.

At this point in my life I thought I knew something about poker because I had read a few books, I had seen "Rounders", and I even made a little money in the home games at school. I went downstairs to the poker room and sat down at a low stakes Texas hold-em game. I proceeded to lose $100 fairly quickly. I got up for a little bit to think about whether I wanted to blow every dime I had on me... and end up in the soup line out in front of the church. I decided I would buy another $100 worth of chips, and if I lost it then that was it. I would just not gamble for the rest of the trip and spend the remaining money on food and drinks.

I sat back down and bought another $100. After a few rounds my stack had dwindled down to about $20 and I started to mumble about what I was going to do if I went broke. Just as I said that, the woman sitting next to me put her hand on my leg and said, "You'll be ok... just stay here and sit with me for a little bit longer...things will turn up, I promise." She smiled. It took me a moment to recognize what might be going on... and even then I wasn't sure. It became more clear when as I lost my last chip the woman bought another rack and placed it in front of me. "Keep playing. You'll win eventually." So I kept playing. I took a glance at her. She was definitely in her late 40s or early 50's. She was wearing rings on almost every finger so it was tough to tell if she was married. Did she want me to "repay" her somehow, or was she just being generous? And I did win a pot here and there. But what I didn't realize is that I was horrible at this game. Everyone knew when I had a hand and when I didn't. Even if I got a on a really lucky streak, I was just outmatched. I would lose it back eventually. Sure enough, I was down to my last few chips again. She bought another rack and put it in front of me. She started chatting me up...asking questions about me. Where was I from? What was I doing here? I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. Then... it finally happened. I got a huge hand and won a gigantic pot. I had won back the $200 she had given me plus a little bit. I was happy and excited. When I sat back down she put her hand back on my thigh and leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Are you hard right now?" and then moved her hand to find out for herself.

Whoa. Am I being propositioned? She stayed close to my ear and whispered again, "Whaddya you say we take that money and go get some room service and bottle of champagne..." Uhhh, yep. I was being propositioned. I was clueless as to how to handle the situation. I just started stammering. "Um, well, uh, I can't see because I have to meet my friends, we are out here and supposed to meet up for dinner..." It was 3 am, and a bit late for dinner. I left her $200 on the table and took the $130 that belonged to me and hauled ass.

I didn't return to the poker room for the rest of that week, for fear that she might be in there and continue the unwanted advances. I still wonder if I would had to sleep with her if I had lost the money... doubtful but still a scary thought.

So the next day, it was off to play craps instead, where skill doesn't play as big a part in winning or losing. In fact, sometimes, if you play very stupidly, you can win a lot of money. I placed my first bet on the pass line, barely knowing what that meant. I just saw everyone else doing it so I followed suit. The shooter rolled a 7 and the dealer put another two $5 chips next to the ones I had just placed there. I didn't know if I had won or what so I did nothing. He asked me, "Do you wanna press it?" I also didn't know what that meant but found myself casually saying, "Yes, let's press it. He stacked the new chips on top of the old ones. The shooter rolled again. Another 7. Four more more chips. Again I just sort of stood there, hands folded in front of me. "Press again?" I nodded. He stacked them on top of one another. The shooter rolls. It was a 10 this time. Now the dealer asks me a new and even more confusing question. "You want odds on that?" Not wanting to appear confused I said "Sure!" He shrugged at me. "How much?" he asked. "I don't know," I replied. "What would you recommend?" He appeared annoyed. "You can go up to 5 times the bet. You bet $40, so you can put any where from $40 to $200 in $40 increments." I only had brought the $130 so I had exactly $120 left and put it all on the "odds"... whatever that meant. I watched as the guy with the dice rolled a bunch of other numbers. Other people were winning and losing money but my chips just sat there....until the shooter rolled double fives. Everyone at the table shouted in excitement. "10! Winner! Pay the line!" exclaimed the guy in the middle with the stick. I looked down and the dealer was stacking and re-stacking and adding all kinds of chips to my pile. They were all splayed out. Finally a guy next to me leans over and says, "You know... that's your money down there. You won it. You can pick it up anytime you want." Relieved, I gathered up the chips. The dealer looked at me and said, "Not gonna press it this time?" with a wry smile. I decided it was time to go. I brought the chips over to the cashier and she counted me out 4 crisp $100 bills and two $20s.

Wow. It might have been the most money I had even won gambling. I met up with my friends and we went to dinner. I offered to pay for the horrible buffet food we had just eaten. After dinner we headed off to try some blackjack.... more on that later.