Ruminations

Opinions, thoughts, & recommendations.

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Name: Dave Leigh
Location: Union, South Carolina, United States

I was born too young. And when I die, I'll still be too young.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day, part 2

I know I said I'd post this tomorrow, but the last one was kind of sad, and I feel obligated to make up for it. I've written about my mother before, in eulogy. This is more of a straight remembrance of who she was.

What I can say about my mother is that she was simply the best person I have ever known, in the most literal sense.

First, I'll get the unpleasantness out of the way. She left my father in the dead of night, taking her three sons for a three-hour drive to Columbia, where we re-settled. This was because Everett threatened to run away from home, and she had to face losing at least one child or taking all of them and leaving her husband. She was in a "no-win" situation.

She got a job (the first real job of her life!) working at Shakespeare, putting the metal eyes on fishing poles. Sometime after that, she got a job at Bendix making electrical connectors. I think she went there after Carrie had gotten a job there. She stayed there until she retired. The work she did was incredibly detailed. She started out screen-printing the little letters next to the pins of connectors. Then she did QA work and re-work. "Re-work" involved re-painting defective letters by hand using a high-powered magnifier and a brush consisting of two hairs. The letters were nearly microscopic, so this took an incredibly steady hand. I actually used some of the connectors she made in my work while in the Air Force.

Mom could do anything she put her mind to. I mentioned in my father's note that she made fishing nets. She was a superb seamstress... she could embroider, tat, knit, sew... she did crewel embroidery, cross-stitch, and plastic canvas. She taught classes in crafts at Clemson University Extension. She made christening dresses for all of her grandchildren (and step-grandchildren, and she didn't make any distinction between them), even for those to whom "christening ceremony" was a foreign concept. She did my kids' Halloween costumes as well. Two times when she outdid herself were the Triceratops costume she made for Will (he won two competitions with that one), and the "Sora" anime costume (from Kingdom Hearts) she made for Tim.

She had a beautiful singing voice, and played piano. I also have her music books. On the piano her favorite song to play was "St. Louis Blues", but in later years her favorite song was the hymn, "That Beautiful Land". She had a gorgeous rosewood piano, which my niece Leah now has.

She loved cats. For many years we were never without a cat, but Terrell didn't want one when he was older, and she couldn't care for one toward the end. But there were images of cats EVERYWHERE. She called her grandchildren "pussycat"... to the point where my twins called HER, "Grandma-that-calls-us-pussycat." She collected thimbles and tea sets.

She was an excellent cook, but rarely used written recipes. Her recipes went something like this: "You add this much salt..." ("this much" being illustrated by her hand being held out, her palm cupped in a particular way). For instance, on the proper way to make noodle dough, she would say, "add enough salt to where you JUST think it's too salty. Then add a little more" (it would leech out as the noodles boiled). She made it clear to me that that is the way she learned it from HER mother. Most of her recipes were German, but she could handle any style of food. She seriously improved bulgogi. Hers was much better than the original, even according to Yung. Yung was my step-brother Olin's wife. As she is Korean, born and raised, I trust her word on it. I'm probably best at recreating her signature dishes. My brother Everett might disagree with me, and he does cook more often than I do; but the fact is that when I cook I cook like Mom; Everett cooks like EVERETT. Nevertheless, she taught all of her boys to cook, telling us that we would marry women who couldn't. She was right. (I'm not sure whether she just didn't teach didnt' teach my sister Carrie to cook, or Carrie just wasn't listening.)

Mom was a voracious reader. When she died I packed her books. Boxes and boxes of them. She liked murder mysteries most especially; historical books about English royalty; fantasy (like Xanth) and sword and sorcery. She loved stories about vampires, and had a lot of Anne Rice books. Lisa and I now own some of the books that she was especially fond of: the "Elsie" and "Mildred" series, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and Barsoom series, and Conan. I inherited her love of books; we often swapped books. and my library is likewise huge. I can't display all of them, so have many of them boxed up in the basement.

I mentioned she loved vampire tales... she was a huge fan of Dark Shadows. When she was on its first run and she was working she often couldn't see it. I did, since it came on after school. So I'd clue her in on what was going on. Likewise she often missed the Edge of Night. (I think missing the soaps is the one thing she missed about being a "non-working" housewife). A few years ago the Sci-Fi channel showed all of Dark Shadows (except the boring first year prior to the arrival of Barnabas Collins). She taped them ALL. Carrie's got the tapes.

She did puzzles. The sort of Mensa puzzles most people just don't do. She did crosswords where there were no black squares and no numbered squares. She did logic problems. Anagrams. Cyphers. The harder the better. She was frighteningly intelligent. Her problem solving ability got her a reputation at work as the "go-to" person for solving difficulties... the engineers had a particular problem with a new piece of machinery. She determined that the problem wasn't with the machine, but with the viscosity of the ink. "It needed to be the consistency of mayonaisse," she explained.

When my friend Keith Miller accidentally dropped his car keys down the sewer drain in front of her house, we all stood around looking stupid and helpless, wondering how to get them out. She came outside, asked us what the problem was, then said, "Oh! No problem!" She went inside and got her purse, pulled out a magnet and a length of thread. Tying the thread to the magnet and dropping it down the grate, she easily retrieved the keys. Her purse was like Mary Poppins' carpetbag. It always contained whatever it was you needed at the moment.

My stepfather appreciated her problem-solving as well. She's the one who did his books for the farm and the Christmas tree farm as well. I recall a time when he decided to rebuild his carburetor. Having taken it apart and cleaned it, he couldn't get it back together properly. He worked on it for a while, then apparently had an epiphany... he got up and said to her casually, "Honey, I've got most of this done. Can you just finish it up, please?" So she rebuilt his carburetor. Nobody told her it might be hard, so it wasn't.

She was a perfectionist, but she was selective about it. Where housework was concerned, "good enough" would do. Her house was clean, but obviously lived in, and most rooms had a little clutter. Her sewing room was a disaster area at first glance, but she knew where everything was. But when it came to her handcrafts, she was ruthless. There could be no mistakes. I've seen her cut out huge sections of tatting because of a mistake made days before. And she was tireless. That bit of tatting was part of a HUGE tablecloth. All tatted lace. Little knots in thread. While in the Air Force I visited the purported "world capitol of lace" in Belgium. I saw the craftwork first-hand, and I realized with a start that the very best lace in the entire world was made by my own mother.

When it came to my grades, her method of motivation was singular. For example, I finished my Air Force tech school in the top 1%... good enough to be tapped for duty at the Presidential/VIP radio station. When I called to tell her the news, that I had scored 99%, she asked, "What happened to the other one percent? What didn't you understand?" In one breath she reminded me never to lose my humility and also that the finish line doesn't have to be the end... you can always go back and learn that one percent.

You might think from reading this that she was some sort of saint who never had a bad or selfish thought. That's not true. I've seen her mad, but never without reason. I've seen her be unreasonable, but never on things that really mattered. I've seen her be selfish, but only in petty indulgences that she really deserved anyway. She could hold a grudge... she didn't speak to her brother Ben for years, and likewise my sister Carrie. But I'm quite sure that's as much their fault as hers. But the good so far outweighed the bad that the bad might as well not have existed at all. As executor of her will, I know firsthand that she did not have it in her to be unfair, even when she felt wronged.

I haven't mentioned anything about her cancer. That's because she did all of the things I just mentioned in spite of it. But here it is: when I was a teenager, she injured her back at work (a box fell on her). She developed cancer near her spine, which was removed through a series of successively more radical surgeries. They finally did what was called a "radical re-section", in which most of the muscle in her lower back was removed. She quickly learned to walk without those muscles and returned to work. When the cancer returned, she went through more surgery. She had a number of lumps in her arms that were removed over the years... she casually called it her "harvest". But finally she developed leukemia, which was inoperable. The chemo worked for a while, and the cancer went into remission. My stepfather was in poor health at the time, and she told me that when she prayed, she asked that she could stay alive long enough to take care of him, because she promised him she would. Nevertheless, you could tell she was getting tired. Occasionally she would ask, "When is it MY turn?" But never to him. When Terrell died, she thought it was her turn. Two weeks later she learned that the leukemia was back. This was a strain which chemotherapy couldn't cure. She went through chemo ANYWAY, because the doctors might learn something that would help someone else.

She spent a little time at the nursing home (as a patient, not a resident), then moved in with Everett. Robert's girlfriend Peggy looked after her. A short while before she died (and she had a pretty good idea when that would be), she called us in and said goodbye and told us not to quarrel amongst ourselves. She also told us what we could have of her belongings... there wasn't really any need for a will, because she gave everything away before she died. Her last words were to my niece, Michelle: "Bye, bye, pussycat."

Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day tomorrow, in which we remember and honor those who have lost their lives in defense of their country. I certainly am doing that, complete with the traditional hot dogs and grilling out, but from the very name of the holiday I can't help but observe it in a broader sense as well, and remember all of those that we've lost. So today I'm going to post a remembrance of my father, and tomorrow, of my mother.

Here's what I remember of my father.

He wasn't a terribly big man. If I had to guess today I'd say he was about 5' 7". Black hair, blue eyes, dark skin... darker than the picture I have would indicate. Think a deep Mediterranean tan; the sort of tan you get from being outside most of the time in the subtropical climate of Charleston, SC. His joints popped incessantly... He would have my brother Robert and me pull his toes for him. (Mom says her mother sometimes referred to him as "Mr. Cracky-Bones") He had false teeth, which he soaked in a glass by his bed.

I remember that he loved fishing. He and my mother made the nets. They'd tie the twine to the doorknobs and use big shuttles to make the knots. These would be used for shrimping, which I never did. However, we did go down to the river to fish and to the inland waterway to go crabbing. He'd bring a big (to me) trashcan about 1/3 full of water. He'd have several lines in the water, and by "lines" I mean clothesline. Each line would be tied to a hambone. Once a crab got hold of it he wouldn't let go, and you could just pick him out of the water... sometimes several on one bone. He'd hold them over the trashcan and would let me knock them off into the can. When he'd been fishing he would come home and dump the fish, still alive, into a bathtub filled with water. Robert and I would lean over the side of the tub and watch them. They'd stay there, swimming around, until Mom killed and cleaned them.

We lived on Tahoe street, West of the Ashley river in Charleston. The backyard was fenced in, and had honeysuckle and strawberries. It was a pretty nice place to play, when the sun wasn't beating down so hot that you burned yourself on the slide. Then my father, for some reason I can't fathom, brought home two goats. They liked to butt. So much for playing in the yard. Also say goodbye to the honeysuckle, strawberries, and grass.

He was a Mason. I have one picture of him, and it shows him wearing a yoke with a square and there is a square depicted on his apron. This denotes that he was the Master of his lodge. The picture would have been taken to commemorate his election. It was probably one of the proudest days of his life, and he certainly looks it. He would have been younger then than I am now.

What remains isn't terribly flattering, but they're my first-hand memories, be they what they may:

He wasn't what I would call terribly responsible. I remember that he and Mom argued about things such as his buying a car before paying off the one he had.

He was a bit of a slob. He tended to walk around the house in his underwear, and he had a bad habit of spitting to one side of his bed. Gross. He abused not only alcohol, but also other drugs, including, I believe, morphine. We had a loose tile in the bathroom, and there was a needle hidden in the wall. Needles were also hidden in the hems of the curtains.

Not to put too fine a point on it, when he drank he was abusive, and my mother was the target of his abuse. He called her stupid (she was anything but!) and was physically abusive as well. Mom didn't leave until she was faced with a "no win" choice... Everett threatened to run away from home, and she had to face losing at least one child or taking all of them and leaving her husband. She packed us up in the middle of the night and we drove the three hours to Columbia, where we re-settled. She didn't tell Carrie where we were going for fear that she would tell him. And when I say "fear" I mean it literally. She stayed afraid until she was granted a divorce and remarried.

I know Frank Leigh had some redeeming qualities that caused my mother to fall in love with him and marry him. If, as she told me, my brother Robert is his father made over, then I have a good idea what they were. But I do wish I'd seen more of that when I knew him. (As I'm looking at his picture, it's amazing how much of him is in Robert. Rob's hair is thinning on top, but otherwise it's the same face; the same smile.)

I have one last memory, and it's kind of sad. In the divorce settlement he was granted liberal visitation rights: "reasonable notice, reasonable hours" in my mother's home. I know because I had exactly the same language written into my own divorce settlement years later. He never took advantage of it. Not once. Once, when he was visiting my sister, Mom took Robert and me to her in-laws' house to meet him. He spoke with Carrie quite a bit, but obviously didn't feel comfortable with us. Years later, when I was 17, during Mom's first bout with cancer, I drove her to Charleston for a medical appointment. I stopped to refuel, and at the other side of the very pump I was using was my father. I finished, walked past him and nodded, payed for the gas, walked past him AGAIN, and got in the car. I told Mom to look, and she quietly asked, "Did you say hello?" I said, "Why? He doesn't know me."


[update: my older brother informs me that I got "99%" of this right... except that my father didn't drink... it was barbiturates. In my defense, when you're six years old you don't don't know why an adult is screwed up... just that he is. Also, while I mentioned that Mom said my brother Robert was "his father made over", I want to make it clear that substance abuse was NOT part of Robert's inheritance.]

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek is a Winner

Warning: if you don't like spoilers, don't read this. True Trek fans don't mind the spoilers.

I'm a Star Trek fan from Day One. I vividly remember watching the Man Trap episode on Sep 8, 1966. I was only 4 years old at the time, and it was the most terrifying thing I'd seen up to that date. Today I know enough not to confuse it with hard science fiction, but I'm willing to set aside physics for Star Trek. As a hard-core fan, I'm of the opinion that you do not under any circumstances EVER mess with the original characters.

This is one of the reasons I love Star Trek Phase II, where James Cawley and a host of volunteers have not only accurately mimicked the look and feel of the original series, but have managed to bridge the gap between it and the original cast movies. So it was with not a little trepidation that I heard that J.J. Abrams was going to "reboot" Trek. Then I saw the leaked photos, like this monstrous parody of the Enterprise:
Remember what I said about not messing with the cast? It goes triple for the Enterprise. Looking at this re-design, and the horrible and cramped styling salon that passes for a bridge, I felt sure that Montgomery Scott himself would slingshot himself to 2009 and personally kick J.J. Abrams ass.
That's not the bridge of the Enterprise... it's an Apple store.

So my expectations going into this movie were basically, "this is going to suck."

Well, now I've seen the new Star Trek movie, and contrary to my expectations, it didn't suck. It didn't just entertain. It rocked! Now for the spoilers.

It's a re-boot alright. A very pissed off Romulan (Nero, played by Eric Bana), goes back in time after the destruction of Romulus. His intent is to destroy Vulcan and the Federation, thus pre-emptively avenging his homeworld. His first act: he destroys the ship on which George Kirk, father of James T. Kirk, is serving. Growing up fatherless, Jim Kirk doesn't rush off at the first possible opportunity to follow his father into Starfleet, choosing instead to be the dysfunctional "rebel without a cause". Nevertheless, he's talked into Starfleet by Christopher Pike, years after he would have otherwise joined. There he meets the crew we've all known.

Now, you can already see a departure from the original Trek universe... and it makes perfect sense. Kirk is no longer the "stack of books with legs" described by Gary Mitchell. In fact, Mitchell doesn't appear at all, having graduated in an earlier class. Kirk's assignment on the Farragut never happens, as he spent it riding motorcycles, chasing skirts, and getting drunk.

Even the design changes to the ship make sense. Here's my theory... a brilliant young engineer (let's call him "Ensign Matt Jeffries") was aboard the USS Kelvin when Nero destroyed it. Thus he was never assigned to the engineering design section of Starfleet, and all of the influences that he would have had on the design of the Enterprise were missing. Thus we have the squat, pipe-laden thing of the movie rather than something much cooler, like this:
Along the way, we discover why Spock turned down assignment to the Vulcan Science Academy, earning Sarek's ire for all those years in the original series. But a major, yet necessary, departure from the original canon prevents the same rift from forming in the new continuity. We learn why McCoy is called "Bones" (it's not short for "sawbones"). And we see Uhura and Chekov more competent than we've ever seen them before. We also get to see a bit of where Montgomery Scott may have wound up without a Captain Jim Kirk to request his posting to the Enterprise.

The casting is excellent. I had doubts about some of the choices until I saw them doing their jobs. Chris Pine is not the Kirk we remember, but he can't be, given the significant differences in their backgrounds. But over the course of the film he becomes Captain James T. Kirk, and in the final scene he is most assuredly the same officer that William Shatner brought to life. Zachary Quinto is excellent as Spock. Again, this is not exactly the Spock we remember, nor in this case does he become that Spock. This is as it should be, given the events of the film. Never mind, Leonard Nimoy as the old Spock is still around to provide continuity and step into a mentoring role. Tossing aside the calendar and considering only his personal timeline, he winds up being quite possibly the oldest Vulcan in the galaxy. Karl Urban probably provides the best characterization. He has nailed McCoy. You won't see this as an impression of DeForest Kelley, but you can't help but watch Urban and say, "Yes! THAT is McCoy!" (though I still think that physically he's a dead ringer for the original "Gary Mitchell", Gary Lockwood) Zoe Saldana will have an entirely new generation drooling over Uhura. Anton Yelchin is far removed from Walter Koenig; nevertheless, he brings the right mix of youthful exhuberance and over-achievement to the role of Pavel Chekov... if anything, the accent is thicker, but it's more authentic. John Cho doesn't have a lot to do as Sulu but be Asian and athletic, but he does both naturally. Long known to be a fencing enthusiast, in this movie Sulu has a folding katana that everybody is going to want). But my personal favorite has to be Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott. He simply steals every scene he's in just by being there. Scotty has always been my favorite character, and having one of my favorite actors portray him was a nice extra. And while Pegg's home in Gloucester isn't exactly Glasgow, Pegg does a much more believable Scots accent than Jimmy Doohan. (I spent enough time living in the UK to appreciate the difference.) Everybody really did a first-rate job.

There are some things in here just for us Trekkers: just about every word out of McCoy's mouth; Captain Pike in a wheelchair; the way Kirk bites the apple during the Kobayashi Maru test; the Alexander Courage theme music; mention of Admiral Archer's prize beagle.

That's it for the gushing. There were a few things I think could have been subdued or done without... there's a scene in Engineering that could have been stolen from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I saw it I couldn't help but think they were channeling Galaxy Quest. Let me just say that there's no reason for giant chompey things, and there's no reason for what's in the new Engineering, either. Perhaps it's useful to tie the Star Trek universe to the present day, but I could probably do without the product placement, as well.... although knowing that Nokia will be around in the 23rd century should put investors' minds at ease (except for that "no money in the future" thing, of course).

And here's my hard-core Trekker's complaint. There's one thing in the movie that can't be explained away with retcon or alternate timeline. At one point, Kirk is stranded on "Delta Vega", which we know from the second TV pilot as a dry, deserted world that's home to a an automated lithium cracking plant. It's located on the very edge of the Galaxy. We know it as the world where Gary Mitchell died. It's hell and gone from Vulcan. And yet in this movie it's a frozen wasteland with the planet Vulcan looming large in its sky. Rather than Delta Vega, this can only be another moon of T'Khut. They could have called it almost anything but Delta Vega and gotten away with it. But this is a minor quibble, which I'm going to put down as a bug in the Federation database.

But all in all, this movie gets two thumbs up from this Trek enthusiast.
I just wish they'd fix the ship. Maybe it'll grow on me.

Now, here's something interesting from the parallel universes department. Compare the new movie's plot with Tim Russ' Of Gods and Men (available for free download on the Internet). In OGAM, Charlie Evans goes back in time to kill Jim Kirk, removing him from the timeline and severely changing the Federation. It's worth a watch.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

New Music: In My Memory

"In My Memory" is a song William Hoover and I wrote for the 2009 Boogaloo Folk Life production of "Can't Live With 'Em". You can probably guess from the title that the theme is relationships.


Now, my opinion is biased, but I quite like this one.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

New Music: Billy Jean

Believe it or not I've actually recorded Billy Jean. It's crap... don't say I didn't warn you.

I sincerely hope it inspires someone to go forth and do a better job so I can link to their version instead. As usual, it's released under a Creative Commons - attribution, share-alike, non-commercial license to make that possible. If you think you can make money with it, then more power to you... write me for permission to use it commercially.