Sunday, November 29, 2009

Imagine That Ten Years Have Gone By

I've noticed ads for end-of-year TV specials, but I haven't seen anything recognizing the fact that we've had 10 years starting with a 2. I guess it's the lack of millennial excitement this time, no Y2K (an abbreviation that can't pass into history fast enough) computer anxieties. Still, it's been a pretty eventful decade; you'd think there would be bit more hoopla. Perhaps it's the nature of those major events; large-scale terrorist attacks, ongoing wars and economic stagnation don't make people want to dance in the streets. I think if anything there's a feeling of Good Riddance, as John Lennon said about another decade, "Weren't the 70's a drag?" Of course, he then said, "Let's try to make the 80's better" and was killed shortly thereafter, reminding us of the fleeting nature of optimism, and that things can almost always get worse.

When I mentioned this passing of years to my wife, she said, "It doesn't seem that long ago", which is a common reaction, but one I don't share about that time frame. When I think back to my life at the end of 1999 and all that happened since, the bad - 2 divorces; an ill-advised job change requiring relocation to another town; lingering financial chaos brought on by those decisions - and the good - meeting my wife; seeing my daughter grow up to be a good, sensible young adult; Grandbaby - it's definitely been 10 years' worth.

As I look at that last paragraph, it occurs to me that most of the bad for me happened between 2000-2005 and most of the good from 2005-2009, which I guess is a reminder of the fleeting nature of pessimism, and as Lennon said in that same tragically ironic interview, “while there’s life, there’s hope”.

Mercantile Melee

Well, I finally did it. I’ve been avoiding it for years, but this year special circumstances eliminated the usual excuses. I went to an early day-after-Thanksgiving sale. My wife had targeted some Christmas presents she felt were worth pursuing; my daughter had to be at work between 4:30 and 5:00 AM, so I was up; and I had to work at 7:00 so there wasn’t much to be gained by going back to bed. I sighed and remembered a quote from the great philosopher Red Forman of That ‘70s Show: “Being a man means doing a lot of crap you don’t want to do”.

So we were at Wal-Mart shortly before 5:00, along with a significant percentage of the area population. Happily the store doesn’t actually close, so there was no standing around outside waiting for the chance to trample a little old lady (or be trampled by one; some of them can really move, especially under those circumstances). Although there was a certain herd mentality that was a bit unseemly, it was actually quite civilized for such a large number of undoubtedly sleep-deprived people. The aisle traffic was aggressive, but not rude. Only the areas around electronics and the $2 DVDs were really jammed. Wal-mart had employees handing out certain high-demand items (32” flat-screen TVs seemed to be the star attraction; I saw several carts with 2 or 3) rather than just allowing grab-and-tackle, and most of the other sale items were in sufficient supply that fisticuffs were unnecessary. There were some hardcore shoppers (we overheard someone talking about having been at ShopKo and Toys R Us in Rapid City at midnight), and quite a few multi-shopper expeditionary forces communicating by cell-phone while fanning out to various sections of the store, but in general it wasn’t that much worse than other busy days I’ve seen there.

Of the items on my wife’s list, only the microwave oven was a possible problem, and it turned out to be on a side aisle and unmarked, so once we located them procurement was easy. I suspect people thought they had already been snapped up. I had considered checking out the $200 e-machines laptop, but it looked like they were nabbed at the start (later I found out you needed an advance ticket to get one), and even at that price it would have been a budget-buster right now.

We got what we wanted and into a checkout line ahead of most of the rush, and were out the door and home by about 5:45. On the way home we drove past the mall, where most of the stores were opening at 6:00 (although I heard JCPenney’s had opened at 4:00 and I don’t know about Kmart). I imagine many of the people we saw at Wal-mart would go there, but I was done and happy to be so. I compare the experience to my recent root canal; not as bad as I had heard it could be, but something I hope to avoid repeating.

Answering the Call

I watched most of WWII In HD on the History Channel, and generally enjoyed it, which wasn't a big surprise, as I usually like WWII programs, especially with new material. This one did seem a bit disjointed, as though they either couldn't decide what narrative theme to use or they didn't have enough for just one, so they tried to integrate different themes that had been produced separately. I also noticed that the closed captioning frequently differed from what was said in ways that indicated last-minute editing, which hints at a bit of chaos in the production process, another possible explanation for the slapdash feel. I would like to see a program with that material where they just gave the context of a piece of footage and showed it.

One consistent theme in the program, as with most shows like this, was the ability of people, either individually or as a group, to step up and do things they may have never previously considered. These things may have been extremely unpleasant (the man who found himself almost spontaneously having to kill a German soldier by slitting his throat, and immediately afterward went to a ditch and threw up), or more positive (the reporter who first expressed doubts about the collective fortitude of Americans to handle the rigors of war, then admitted to being wrong), but the overall notion of successfully performing beyond expectations, especially one's own, is usually uplifting; indeed, it's the basis for heroism.

I still recall an example of this that I witnessed which, while not nearly in the same league as combat, is much more typical. I was the student manager for my high school's football team. During a game one of the linemen went down. Happily he just had the wind knocked out of him, but he had to come out. My school was small, but at the time we had the luxury of being able to rotate linemen, so we had a couple of experienced seniors available to fill in. As we were helping the player off the field, I asked the coach who he wanted as a replacement (and I mean The coach, as in the only one, and I was asking him about such things because we were the staff) and he said, "Have Todd get in there." I can't say definitely, but I'm sure my eyebrows went up; Todd was a sophomore who had never been in a game. I ran to the sideline and yelled for Todd, and saw for the first time a graphic demonstration of the phrase "eyes as big as saucers"; I thought he might need a bag in which to breathe. But he collected himself, filled in ably for a few plays, and then came back out when the other lineman had recovered.

I'd like to say that Todd went on to become a star football player, like the man in the recent movie The Blind Side, but it wouldn't be true. On the other hand, he didn't become Al Bundy either. He did eventually become a good high school football player, then - like most of the soldiers in that program did after the war - moved on with life. Todd's experience, however, is the kind most of us are much more likely to face; a sudden, singular, usually momentary development to which we have to react instantly, as opposed to the sweeping change of war. It's the kind of thing we all hope we're up to handling when it comes, as we all know it will. It's the Character Builder, and like many things, a few are good, but we'd prefer not to overindulge.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Waking Up

Eight minutes. Not too bad. From shutting off the alarm to backing out of the driveway in eight minutes. It reminded me of my days signing on at KEVN, when I regularly got up and out in 15 minutes. Of course today I took a few shortcuts I couldn't then; no shower, shave or breakfast. I didn't even comb my hair. What was the point? It was 4:30 AM, I wasn't going to get out of the car, and I'd be back in bed in half an hour.

What prompted this? Money, of course. More exactly, my daughter's job at the Holiday Inn, getting the breakfast bar ready, which occasionally requires her to be there at 5AM. It also entails a drive from the northeast side of town to the southwest, which at that time of day only takes about 10 minutes, thanks to all but one stoplight being in flashing-yellow mode, and presents an opportunity to see the town at an unusual (for me) time.

There may be cities that never sleep, but Pierre isn't one. Among businesses, only Wal-Mart and Marlin's (a truck stop) are open 24/7 here; even the convenience stores close. Only the hospital has enough vehicles in the lot to approximate daytime traffic. The vacant parking lots around everything else combine with all the lights that are left on in buildings and on lots, (I assume this is done for security, but it seems like too many lights are left on at most places. I think at least half could be shut off without affecting the purpose, saving a considerable amount of money.) to create a weird sense of unneeded space, as though the builders had been overly optimistic about growth prospects, or that the businesses are open in anticipation of commerce that isn't coming.

However, it's also apparent that this is just about the time the town starts to wake up. The drive over was almost devoid of traffic or other signs of life. Coming back just a few minutes later I saw people waiting to get into work at various restaurants, more lights on in homes and many more vehicles on the road; the first stirrings of civilization. As I undressed to get back into bed (only then noticing that I forgot to zip my fly; my quick get-up isn't as precise as it once was), I thought that being up and out at this time of day isn't all bad. But I'm glad that I don't have to do it regularly anymore.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Baby Bumblebee

As promised......Her Majesty the Drama Queen in full award-winning regalia. I think the black background, which made her black tights disappear, really makes the photo.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What is Your Emergency?

This poor neglected blog. If it were a houseplant it would have died a long time ago. I just can't seem to find the time and/or material. Even typing this is a struggle due to Grandbaby's insistence on assisting, which is not as helpful as she thinks. She has become quite the drama queen, putting on a show whenever one of her excursions into mischief gets interrupted. She also now officially possesses award-winning cuteness; a picture of her in her Halloween costume entered in a contest at the Wal-Mart portrait studio brought home the hardware. Of course this picture will be posted as soon as I can get it scanned; I have a grandfatherly duty to uphold.

I do have something of an excuse for the last two weeks. I attended (and passed,happily) the 911 telecommunicator certification course. This hadn't been required of us until recently since we're not an actual 911 center, although we do many of the same things. I had fairly low expectations for it since it is intended for people new to the job as opposed to a veteran like me. It had also been 25 years (almost exactly....sigh) since I had been in a classroom setting, and I hadn't missed it. But I must say it turned out to be a good experience. It provided a formal basis for some of the procedures we had developed on our own and some good background information that will be useful. It also allowed me to recharge a bit and shake off creeping burnout.

The best part was the chance to meet people who do what I do, under wildly varying conditions. Some work for fairly large, well-organized operations that offer at least adequate compensation; others are employed by outfits that barely meet the minimum standards for wages that are usually associated with french fries rather than public safety. People tend to think of 911 service as being consistent everywhere, and would be appalled if they knew how many centers have only one person handling not just 911 but all law enforcement dispatch duties (as well as other duties; some also assist with jail operations) for large - if sometimes sparsely populated - areas of the state.

The reason for this, as usual, is money; local jurisdictions don't like to spend any more than absolutely necessary, and complain loudly about any attempt to require better service. Some places closed their 911 centers and contracted the service out rather than upgrade to the latest standards, and a proposal to require two people on duty at all times at a 911 center - if passed - will probably lead to more consolidation.

To a certain degree this is understandable. As the population concentrates more into certain parts of the state, other governments are left with a smaller tax base from which to pay for expensive and sophisticated equipment and the trained people to use it. It's often cheaper and easier to pay someone who already has the facilities to handle it. It may even be advantageous to the public, who get a more consistent level of service.

What is lost is the same thing that is lost when you go to Wal-Mart instead of the small grocery store. The person who answers the call, however conscientious - and I can say that everyone I met at this class has a sense of dedication to public service that I found inspirational; the woman who sat next to me is not only a dispatcher but a volunteer firefighter and EMT - is less likely to have an intimate knowledge of your area and circumstances. This can be upsetting to rural folks used to the Mayberry type of public service. But it is the trade off for the type of emergency service most people have come to expect.