Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Growing Up

Today is the day I just took another important step into adulthood.

Today, I bought my first torque wrench.

It is a CDI, not a full Snap-On, though you don't know how much I miss chasing the Snap-On truck like a parade of sled dogs following the bearer of the doggie chow. (Isn't that an automatic reflex in everyone? I know you can make every head pop out of any nook and cranny in an airplane shop just by calling "Snap-On truck's pulling in!")

I was flat-out astounded that my husband had never before, in his entire life, used a torque wrench. All through my formative years, this was one of the things that marked the transition from shop help to apprentice; the trust to be given a job that required a torque wrench. And the fully certified mechanic saying "Let me see your conversion math. All right, you got it. Now, this is the right torque wrench for that job. If you drop it, I break you. Let me watch you set it." I knew I was getting competent when I was allowed to borrow the torque wrench without being double-checked (and you'd better believe I checked my inch-pound to foot-pound math very, very carefully.)

Calmer Half, though, learned his wrenching in the African Bush Mechanic school of hard knocks. This apparently involved more shooting at things with teeth while changing your tyres, and digging out, and "Is it tight enough? Stomp on the wrench again!" and "Well, if it won't move, use the tank to tow it."

So I carefully explained the caveats to him - that there are lots of tool brands I don't know, and I have no rigorous tests or reviews to prove anything. However, my Daddy kept a small basic stash of Snap-On tools and advised "Ten bucks saved on the tool costs a thousand an hour in the emergency room." Also, every airplane mechanic I knew in Alaska used 'em. Sure, they had a lot of other brands, and some things heavily modified by torch and welder to be the perfect tool for the job, but the strong advice was "Get Snap-On as soon as you can afford it."

Calmer Half smiled at me, and said thoughtfully, "I'm going to use it for an AR-15. It's only working on something four inches away from my favorite pair of eyes. I think that's recommendation enough."

Wow. My very own torque wrench!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Adventures in food you can't read

I popped into the Romanian import store to get a treat for my husband while he's sleeping, and found a can I didn't recognize mixed in with the pate selection. Intrigued, I flipped it over and noted it was marked $2,54 on the bottom - so whatever it was, it'd be a relatively lighthearted, cheap adventure.

The store owner perked up as she bagged my pate tins, and waved it at me. "You'll like this! Is wonderful!" I grinned, and we giggled over the joys of surprising people we love with food. She understands that Food Is Love, after all.

When I got home, I cracked open the mystery can to try it, and was surprised by little headless fish in oil. Squinting and bringing the can up to bright light, I found the 4-point english font required for import among the Cyrillic: "Smoked sprats in oil."

Shrugging, I decided to try some with cheese. And that's when my shins were tackled by twelve pounds of all-consuming hunger in cat form.


By the way, they're tasty with a nice sharp cheese. Just lock up the cats before you crack the can, lest you have to excavate cat claws from your thigh.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The ritual words are important

I know, I know, Calmer Half and I share our bank accounts, our home, our marriage, pretty much everything (except the turkish delights, those are all his, and the kalamata olives are all mine). And I knew exactly what I was getting for Christmas (I'd already held it and tried it), and it was a toss-up as to which of us would pay for it, because shared accounts.

That doesn't matter. There are still important rituals that must be performed.

So Calmer Half dutifully ignored the gentle laughter of the gun store employees as he lifted the box, pressed it into my hands, and said "Merry Christmas."

Of course he got a kiss!

...and being a wise man, he was not at all slow to deny any possibility that he was going to make his wife wait until Christmas to shoot it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

European Market and Deli

As the child of an expat, and wife of an immigrant, I have a certain fondness and skepticism toward the import food stores and foreign delis and bistros. I grew up eating not-from-here dishes as special treats and everyday food, and watching friends and family experience the bliss of eating something flavored with nostalgia. (Nostalgia is a special seasoning that can transform the most awful concoctions into delightfully tasty things. Kippered mackerel, rose-flavored turkish delights, horse meat, pixie stix powder washed down with a slug of mountain dew.. it's all much of a muchness.)

Without the special seasoning of nostalgia, I was underwhelmed by most of the things that got passed around and hoarded by adults in a manner eerily reminiscent to my treatment of trick-or-treat candy. On the other hand, it's not hard to become awfully fond of McVitties Digestives with milked and sugared tea, and barley water on a hot summer day is wonderfully refreshing, leading to its own nostalgia flavouring when I grew up.

On the other hand, when I got my own car keys and credit card, I started to understand a lot of the sarcasm expats vented at delis and bistros, and "European Bistros" are usually the hardest hit. They're often operated with people who are in love with the image of some alternative-reality Europe they have in their head, where socialism is hip and communism won, and want to sell you a quarter of the food at twice the price while proclaiming their anti-capitalist bona fides and sneering at each other about coffee. In their minds, everything they don't like about America is of course not done by the Europeans, who are creatures of utopia.

...yeah. I'll spend my capitalist dollars elsewhere, thank you, while they play 70's protest songs and cater to an increasingly greying crowd who wants to think they're fighting the man while terrorizing their students and not realizing they're "the man" the college students who escaped indoctrination hate. Except when my husband gets a serious craving for a properly European pastry or dessert, in which case I'll try not to be too loud while pointing and laughing at the Hillary Clinton shrine. Sigh.

On the other end of the spectrum, today we took a chance and swung into a parking lot in the hinterlands of Nashville's metro sprawl (Mt. Juliet) to check out the "European Market and Deli" sign in the window. On a nice cold (for the south) day, we walked into a store where the owner clearly felt there was no need to turn on half the lights when it was sunny, and the obvious solution to a cold day was for customers and owner to wear sweaters, not turn up the heat.

This is like pulling up to a small airport and hearing the loving growl of a radial engine; you know you've got something good! Now, mind you, I deny any report of Calmer Half squealing in glee when he spotted quince preserves. Like a girl at a Justin Beiber concert. Low carb diet be damned. I cannot deny we met at the end of an aisle to find we'd both grabbed the same selection of pate... hey, he has good taste! We lingered lovingly over the meats, and could not pass up real Polish kielbasa made by a butcher who knew how they should taste (and yes, we both checked for the USDA inspected stamp. Not slow, children of expats or American immigrants.) This stuff isn't going into soups or stews, oh no.

The owners are Romanian, and like any small import store, the taste of home has the heaviest representation. The cheeses (goat and sheep, mostly) were Romanian with a small sprinkling of Greek, and if you like a cheese with a strong sharp flavor like the best cheddar or feta, I highly recommend the Romanian "sheep cream cheese." The prices are very nice, not the usual import-store-high, and I even saw a couple common biscuits (cookies) and Jaffa cakes at prices lower than the trendy stores that also carry import versions.

The owner, who clearly had dealt with Americans expecting her import "sheep cream cheese" to be as bland as philadelphia cream cheese, tried to warn me until Peter spoke up in his lovely British Colonial accent, at which point I was deemed quite knowledgeable enough to make my own adventurous food choices. (It is absolutely delightful with the real kielbasa and pickled onions, by the way.)

They chatted, as expats do, of how long you've been in country, and from where. She mentioned she'd come to the USA in the very early 80's, and I tried to rack my brains about important historical points in Central Europe... not my strong point. Calmer Half is much faster at being on the ball on that, but then, people were shooting at him in that time period. He was paying very sharp attention to world politics. His eyebrows flew up, and he responded in a very impressed tone. "Oh, you got out the hard way."

"Yes, yes I did." She straightened up with a fierce pride, and they glanced over at my still puzzled face. She helped by spitting a name out as though it were the foulest curse ever to touch her lips - "Ceaușescu" - and things suddenly became very clear. (I'm slow, not stupid.)

Yeah, I was definitely the privileged one in the store, for which I thank my parents and ancestors very much. The other two became Americans the hard way, and they're likely better, fiercer, prouder Americans than I can ever be. Thank G-d for the people like that who help keep our nation and its ideals strong.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hope Takes Wing

Sometimes, humanity is awesome, and people accomplish amazing things. Like, for instance, landing a probe on a freakin' comet. That's just mind-bogglingly awesome, with a standing ovation success moment worthy of cinematic standing and cheering. When we do things like this, yeah, we know we'll eventually overcome the gravity well and explore the universe.

There are quieter victories going on every day around us, too, projects of amazing vision and scope that take years of work to achieve smaller victory after victory. building toward a success so incredible it will seem only natural when it's done. Take, for example, Operation Migration.

In the 1940's, there were only 15 whooping cranes left alive in the wild. After eight decades of conservation work, the population is up to just under 600. That's the result of year after year of hard work by dedicated volunteers. These are environmentalists in the truest sense - not the posing for the cameras and shouting that fur is bad, but in the shoveling shit and spending year after year raising the birds and working through the massive amounts of bureaucracy and regulation between America and Canada to re-establish them. These men and women are to environmentalists what Ayan Hirsi Ali is to feminism: the real deal, willing to tackle the hardest issues and be out there for the long, dirty, hard and dangerous haul.

Unfortunately, migratory patterns in cranes are like legends, languages, and cultures for humans: something that has to be passed from generation to generation. When the last wild crane who flew the migration between Canada and the Gulf Coast died, so passed all the stops, all the ways to catch the wind, all the timing and the landmarks and the knowledge that there ever was a eden filled with food and warmth over winter, and a perfect breeding ground in the far north. All those moments were, indeed, lost like tears in the rain. The cranes left stayed right where they were at, never understanding the urge within that comes at the changing of the seasons.

And that is where a group of people, starting from the realization that Canada Geese could imprint on an ultralight and fly with it, took hard science and raw hope, and merged the two with a crazy idea: teaching the cranes to migrate, by imprinting them on an ultralight and leading them all the way down. Isn't that a crazy idea? Take a trike, that can't handle rough air, in the cold winter winds, for over a thousand miles... and convince a flock of wild birds to stay with you the whole time.

It works.

The first wild chick was hatched in 2006 and followed its parents along the route OM taught them. It was confirmed that December near the wintering grounds in Florida - proving that the concept was sound. It was the first wild-produced migratory Whooping crane to hatch in eastern U.S. since the last nest was reported in 1878.

And this is why, this morning, Peter and I stood on the side of the road watching hopefully over harvested cotton fields, along with several other folks. We were watching the dawn break and waiting for the pilots and ground crew to come over the radio with "They're airborne." And they did - for a moment, the lead trike rose with seven great big white birds (still speckled brown with juvenile feathers) forming a V off its wingtips.

Of course, nothing ever goes perfectly when working with wild animals, and so the morning became a rodeo, trying over and over to catch the birds as they broke away on their own, heading back to the pen where they'd been. They only made it a mile today - but that's one mile closer for this flock. They'll make it yet!

So, the next time you've had your belly full of the idiocy of humanity, and are feeling despair and gloom, remember this: people can be awesome, and there are great things being accomplished out there if you go looking for them.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I love you

I tell my husband every day that I love him.

I won't lie; I've gotten really angry with my husband. And annoyed. And frustrated. But even then, I still love him, even when I didn't like him very much at that moment. Love is a verb, an action, not a fleeting feeling; it is hard work building together and an opening in your emotional defenses, both making of the two of you into one.

I don't stay mad for very long, though there can be a residual grumpy. For one, it's almost always a miscommunication. Sometimes it's cultural, South African vs. American. Sometimes it's just not communicating our wants and needs and expectations clearly enough, or our limitations, restrictions, and commitments. After enough miscommunications, the ability to realize "this is probably just another miscommunication. We'll cool down, figure it out, and then be laughing and back to normal in a little while" is enough to head off the storm of hurting and shouted words before it blows up.

But there's another reason why I can't stay mad at my husband. It's the same reason I tell him I love him every day, and send him random little notes saying so from work, or the road, or the grocery store.

He's already buried many, many people he cared for, after 18 years of civil war. Some went easy, some went hard, some went in despair, and very few of old age. I, too, have lost far too many people I cared for, laughed with, fought over who'd get to pay the bill and took random road trips and flights with. I've landed the plane and sat and shook for a while, knowing that training and G-d's own grace were the only things that just kept me from joining them. It's getting harder to fly, now that every time I walk out to the plane, a little voice whispers in my ear that this could be my last flight.

I've already lost Peter once, before we even married, to a heart attack. They cracked open his chest and patched everything up, but the patches aren't guaranteed to hold forever. In fact, they're not even guaranteed twenty years.

I can't take him for granted. I don't have enough time. I can lie awake some nights, and already see the empty side of the bed in my future, if a car crash or the airplane doesn't get me first. There's no way to know the date marked on the calendar, but it's coming closer every day, every hour. When that moment comes, there'll be no more chances, no more shared laughter, no new memories to make, no more us....

So he went and bought a new gun or three while I was at work? Cool, he'll enjoy it. So he's decided he wants to change all our plans? It'll work out. So he wants to eat out tonight, instead of cooking like he said he would... would I rather have memories of arguments and nagging, or of a happy husband? Is he looking frustrated at the housework, because his body betrayed him? Eh, I'll just do it so he doesn't have to worry. Is he bored? Let's ditch the standard night in and go on a road trip!

G-d may grant me twenty more years (please, G-d, make it fifty? I know that's asking for a miracle, but I love him), or twenty more minutes. I can't afford to waste the time it takes to grow emotionally distant and then reconcile, or even to stay angry. Here, now, this is all I've got, and dwelling on should-have-done or I-wanted-instead loses precious time we'll never get back.

What caliber for the Grim Reaper? Because I'll fight for this man. And every day, he will know that he is loved.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


"You're a racist!"
"Ah Course I am. NASCAR is far better than Formula One, and Talladega over Daytona. If you don' understand that, you're a damnyankee carpetbagger who doesn't know enough to hold up three fingers on the third lap."

That just kicked over my giggle box.