Home is where the heart is

I was sitting on a flight between New York and Zurich when we ran into some very light turbulence. It wasn't the kind where your neighbor who doesn't like to fly gets a death grip on their armrest; most people stayed asleep, but the flight attendants still hurried to their seats. Curious, I checked the in-flight channel. We'd lost a couple thousand feet in a minute or two. I laughed out loud because most of the passengers didn't have a clue.

I was a pilot. I don't fly anymore, except as a passenger. On my first tour, I had three other helicopters crash in my squadron, with the crews killed or permanently injured, and almost died or crashed eight times. Of the times I experienced, one was due to enemy fire, one was almost due to friendly/neutral fire, and the rest were accidents. I did the math, considered myself lucky, and did my next deployment on the ground.

Everyone's combat experience is different. I can't speak for anyone else. I'm proud of the discomfort we experienced. I pulled a trigger and called in airstrikes; getting shot would have been fair play, though I successfully did my level best to avoid it. Another officer and I (and a squad of Marines) walked into an enemy controlled village in the middle of the night to meet an elder who never showed up. I had dysentery once. Corpsman gave me Cipro when I finally went to medical after several days of constant fluidity. I thought it was funny then, and I still think it's funny now. Dying for no reason, to no gain, not to save someone's life or in a measured gamble to win against a clever foe, but because I got a bad roll of the dice or stepped in the wrong place? Hard pass.

I finished my deployments, finished my commitment, got out, kept the stories, no regrets, I'd do it all again. But I was edgy. I called in a suspicious package, my first year in New York. When I took a walk through one of the less opulent neighborhoods of Geneva at night, I did my best to project "hard target" and people crossed the street to avoid me. I don't attack people who startle me, but I could. I don't take cover when a firecracker goes off, but I figure out where the sound came from, just in case. I plan to live a long time.

In April of 2012 (I think, I'm terrible with calendars), I went back to Monaco, where I grew up, for the first time in 10 years. Monaco's a funny place. One family is responsible for making sure all the real estate is maintained and painted regularly. The police officers dress like Marines, even though they're not quite as sharp, and they're polite, multilingual, and everywhere. It's governed by the longest dynasty in the world, including Egyptian and Chinese rulers. The streets are clean*; the buses run on time. It's so predictable, I used the passive voice. Nothing happens in Monaco, not even accidents.

I was standing in a park on the side of the Rock, where the palace is. The gardens in Monaco are lovely and, like cops and surveillance, plentiful. But the smell hit me, the mix of the sea breeze and that particular combination of Mediterranean flora, the feel of the springy rubber of the playground under my feet where I'd run as a child over a decade back. New buildings had sprung up in other parts of the Principality, but this place was the same. Something inside me relaxed. I didn't feel the need to be watchful at all, and I thought, I'm standing at the precise point on Earth where the form of an idea has taken substance. I was safe. This was home.

*Even Monaco can't convince all the octogenarian heiresses to pick up after Mr. Ruffles, but it'll be pressure washed away by morning.


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A Marine joke

Since this past week has brought back a few memories, here's a joke that will make most Marines and people who know Marines laugh, and everyone else understand them a little better.

A U.S. Army corporal is out running in the hills with his team for PT (Physical Training). As they near a ridge, they see a Marine in full dress blues crest the skyline, raise a sharp salute, and then flip them the finger.

The corporal says, "Did you see that? You three go up there and kick his ass."

His team tears up the ridge, and the Marine backs away. There are crashes, and shouts, and a few whimpers. No one comes down.

The corporal hightails it in the other direction and runs into a squad practicing patrolling. He tells the squad leader what happened. The sergeant says, "Bullshit."

The corporal swears it's true.

The squad follows him up the hill, and the Marine crests the skyline in his dress blues. He raises a sharp salute, then flips them the finger.

The sergeant is pissed. "Get that guy!" he shouts, tearing up the hill. The others follow, except the corporal who hangs back.

Shouts. Clatters. Breaking glass. No one comes back.

Sweating and hiding behind a rock, the corporal calls his staff sergeant. The staff sergeant, being wiser and more experienced, realizes a rogue U.S. Marine loose in the hills is a major problem. He gathers a whole platoon - close to 50 soldiers - and marches them into the hills. They don't even slow as the Marine flips them off and disappears back over the hill, they just break into a run. The staff sergeant hangs back to make sure the corporal is okay. 

Crashes, screams, and the sound of someone crying, then silence. The staff sergeant shrugs at the corporal. "Well, let's go up there and make sure they don't beat him up too badly." They're halfway up the hill when one of the platoon members crawls over the ridge, face bruised and bleeding, and yells, "Staff Sergeant! Don't come up here; it's a trap! There's two of them!"

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WAO: Service with a Smile

I shook a drug dealer’s hand today. I usually avoid them, but he happened to be on my side of the street, and while I won’t walk toward clusters of them near the less used bridges in downtown Geneva, he was alone and I wasn’t going to cross the street because that would be rude.

The drug dealers in Geneva are very friendly and, for the most part, male, black and from northern Africa, though I did see some eastern Europeans on my walk today. They stand around in specific areas—even when it’s raining lightly, like today—which is how I know he was a drug dealer and I wasn’t just profiling. If you make eye contact, they’ll move toward you with a smile on their faces like you’re a childhood friend they’ve just recognized. If you ignore them, they ignore you.

In this case, I think me walking close enough was interpreted as an approach, so he said “Salut mon frère,” which translates to “Hi my brother,” and raised his hand for the clasp. I mirrored him. It was the kind where you loop your thumbs around each other at mid-chest level, and maybe bump shoulders, though we kept it a foot apart.

I immediately noticed how dry his hand felt, like a fisherman’s or some other profession always exposed to the weather. It was soft, almost like touching paper, and there were no calluses on it or muscle, just sinew, flesh, and bones. My hands have a certain density to them from gripping heavy things, and the remnants of calluses near the top of the palm from gripping heavier things. They’re moist, enough so that on a normal day I’ll get a piece of paper stuck to them once or twice. The first two knuckles of both hands are enlarged from hitting things until they bled, healed, and calcified. He had none of that. He was a lover, not a fighter.

So the police leave them alone. And it’s good business. It’s a unique kind of balance I find almost as comforting as the absence of dealers (on the streets) in Monaco. I’ve never done drugs—I even got rid of my Percocet after eye surgery, didn’t want or need it—but if I ever wanted to, I know it’s not a problem. I just need to go see one of my friends.

I'll write up the rest of my walk and a restaurant I tried out in the next few posts.


Some street art along the way

Some street art along the way

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WAO: Burgers and Gestures

Here's the second part of my Sunday walk. An animal was harmed in the making of this post. It was a cow.

Had a couple people ask about the walking meditation thing, and you can google it but you’re going to get a whole bunch of mystical stuff (no disrespect intended) when it’s not necessary. Here’s the TL;DR: find the spot two fingers below your belly button. That’s your center of gravity. Try to walk while keeping that moving in as close to a horizontal as possible, relaxing as much as possible (neck, shoulders, chest, hips, knees, feet), and keeping the same breathing and stepping rhythm. When you feel like you’ve just woken up from a massage and a nap, you’re there. Just takes practice.

So, I coast up to The Hamburger Foundation like a wave washing up on a beach just short of your sweet sandcastle and obliterating your footprints, shake myself out my altered state and restart the internal monologue. The place is pretty packed – not crowded, but all the tables outside are full and about half the interior is. I’d only ever eaten at the food truck, so I decided to sit down and got a corner table (if that’s important to you, you know why it’s important). The waitress brought me a glass of ice water off the bat, which isn’t the norm in Geneva and a nice touch since it was warm out, and I ordered the house lemonade, a bacon cheeseburger, and some fries. The lemonade was tart, not too sweet, and came with a red spiral-striped straw. The bacon cheeseburger was put together American style (ground chuck, not sirloin, with a thick patty probably bonded with a little egg white) and was just quality ingredients put together without too much seasoning. Fries were good, fresh, not greasy. Overall, I felt almost full and satisfied without feeling weighed down.

So I had a brownie :) Brownies are a trap for restaurants, incidentally, in case you didn’t know. I will go to a restaurant that nails a brownie (no pun intended), and there’s really only two ways of doing it. You can make a regular brownie that’s flaky on the outside and warm and moist on the inside, with just the right level of chocolate and sugary goodness to not be a cake or a cookie, or you can mix that with raspberry or caramel and take it to the next level like my grandmother did. This was the former, but it was well executed and had walnuts in it without feeling dry. I’d go again.

I paid the bill and headed back along the river, getting back in a steady state and enjoying the play of the wind, the sounds people make, and pushing up to a run across a couple streets. I was enjoying the sprints so much I found myself deliberately slowing down so I’d reach the crosswalk in time for a flashing signal. I crossed a man who was slightly dirty and making hand gestures like he was having an animated conversation with himself, but his mouth and throat didn’t move while he did it. He had kind eyes.

Then I was home.

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WAO: Sunny Day in Geneva

I crowdsourced my topic from twitter this weekend. The results were 57% Walking Around, Observing, 29% Conceptual/Philosophy, and 14% Personal Anecdote. So I took a walk; we’ll see how close I get.

It’s a nice day in Geneva. The temperature is warm but there’s a light, gusting breeze passing through the city and the blue sky is relaxing.

There was a tour group outside my building – the department store I’ve posted pictures of before was where J.J. Rousseau lived at some point. The tour guide was a woman in her mid-20s, with about 50 people around her and three minders in safety vests hovering around the herd. She was well spoken with a slight accent, but there was no joy in teaching and speaking for her, which I can understand. She’d probably given this spiel 100 times. Anyway, the point of that part of the speech was that infant mortality was high back then and JJR killed his mother in childbirth, the first tragedy of his life and the opening of his book.

I was talking to a friend (and her husband, by extension) about how different people react differently to stories. My father died when I was under two years old, and I get that the absence of a parent can shape things for you. But I was more focused on the semantics of what she’d used. JJR didn’t kill his mother any more than Da Vinci’s assistant painted the Mona Lisa because he was in the studio while his master painted. The midwife or doctor killed JJR’s mother, maybe his father when he got her pregnant, or you could blame God or evolution for making our heads too big. JJR was just there for the death. Maybe his books would have been more cheerful if someone had told him.

I followed the road northeast, a block away from the lake, just enjoying the feeling of walking and the aforementioned weather. The streets were reasonably full, and most people were wearing bright shorts and t-shirts or workout clothes. A woman and her SO ran past, both sweaty and tired but talking and comfortable with each other. I thought that was nice. A younger woman or girl – American – was having a loud private conversation on her cellphone that she paused as I passed and resumed when I was five feet away, because, obviously, I couldn’t hear her at that point. After two blocks, I decided I wanted a hamburger, and looked up the address of The Hamburger Foundation on my phone since I’d only eaten at one of their food trucks before. I adjusted course and kept moving.

Another block and I fell into a walking state of meditation. This is what that feels like: you become aware of all your senses at once. Every muscle firing as you walk becomes distinct instead of just background. Air moving past your skin feels like fabric sliding over it, and sound like a change in air pressure. You notice little things like a slight pain above your right knee and adjust the way your foot strikes the ground to stop it. All the while, your motion is getting more fluid, until your footsteps stop making noise and you can hear the clinking of a buckle on a purse, the scrape of a lady dragging her flats slightly on the pavement, the clink of silverware, and subtle changes in smell become strikingly obvious. There’s more to it, and it’s all happening at once like you just hit the HD button on your body, but that’s all I can remember because you also feel high on life from the endorphins hitting your bloodstream.

I’ll write up the rest on Tuesday :)  Let me know how I did.

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Self-Help: How to escape in a helicopter part III

You’ve stolen a helicopter, but don’t feel bad, the owner was a jerk and you didn’t feel like walking. The helicopter is flying toward a flat area at about 100 mph, the collective is halfway up, the joystick is 1/3 of the way forward, you’re level (not going up or down), and the front of the helicopter is kinda pointed in the same direction you’re flying. Make sure your seatbelt/straps are fastened if you haven’t already. It’s time for magic. It’s time to land.

Remember what I said about French* helicopters in post I.

Gently ease the joystick back an inch. Look out the side. The buildings/trees/mountains are getting smaller, so you need to push the collective down a tiny bit and push on your right* foot to keep pointed at the flat spot. The key is to do this in little increments. The good news is you have time because you picked a flat spot that’s far away. Keep doing this until the helicopter starts to vibrate.

When the helicopter starts to vibrate, push the joystick forward one inch and freeze. Buildings/trees/mountains are slowly getting bigger, you’re at the magic speed. It’s time to land.

As you get closer to the flat spot, push the pedals to line your nose up with the way you’re going. Again, do it in tiny steps. Keep the joystick and collective where they are. If it feels like you’re going to land short, pull the collective a tiny bit up. If it feels like you’re going to land more than halfway down your flat spot, push it down. Try to keep the joystick where it is, and only make small changes. Don’t pull it back farther than where you started vibrating, or you’ll die.

When the first half of your flat spot and your feet line up with your eyes, push the collective down and use the right* pedal to stay aligned with the way you’re going. Keep doing this. At some point, you’re going to notice that you’re going straight down toward that first half of the flat spot and it’s staying lined up with your feet. Take a moment to think about all the good things you’ve had in life: your first kiss, your favorite meal, and maybe an achievement you’re proud of. The helicopter will come down within a few feet of the ground and level out. This is a special form of magic called ground effect. You’re now flying at about 45 mph over your landing zone.

I have bad news. You’re not a pilot, and that flat spot isn’t flat unless you found a runway, so your ass is going to roll. You don’t have time to worry about that, though, because you’re running out of landing zone at 45 mph. Push the right* pedal until you’re pointing just slightly right* of center, and push the collective down. Do both of these at a steady rate until the collective is all the way down. Don’t worry about where the ground is; don’t worry if you bounce. Just keep pushing it down because it has to go all the way down for you to stop. If you don’t line the helicopter up with the way you’re going or you hit something, you’re going to start tilting.

This is your only job at this point. This is going to make sure you live. If you start tilting, push the joystick to the right*. Do it hard. The helicopter is going to flip several times, the blades are going to snap and zing through something or someone, but you’re belted in so you should be okay (maybe). Congratulations, you escaped in a helicopter.

If you tilt to the left* or you forgot you’re in a French* helicopter, the engine was just pulled forward through the cockpit, so you’ve got nothing to worry about anymore.

Want me to write about something else? Leave a comment or send me an email at dj [at] djboddenauthor.com


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Self-Help: How to escape in a helicopter part II

So, there you were, escaping from an evil mastermind in his sweet unattended helicopter. Your feet are on the pedals, your hand is on the collective, and they’re not moving. The joystick is pushed lightly forward, maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the way, because that’s all you can handle, and the helicopter is moving at roughly the speed of a car on a highway. If any of this didn’t make sense, read the first post again.

Take a look outside. If the trees/mountains/houses are getting bigger, lift the collective a tiny bit. If they’re getting smaller, lower it a tiny bit. Don’t worry too much if the helicopter turns a little when you do this, just keep that joystick pointed (lightly) in the direction you want to go.

Eventually, you’re going to want to land. If there are nothing but small clearings and mountains around you, I’m sorry, I steered you wrong. You should never have gotten into the helicopter, and you’re going to die. But if there’s a flat field or a lake, you’re golden.

Here’s the thing. There’s a magic speed below which a helicopter—in the hands of someone who is not a pilot—goes from being something a particularly bright child could fly to being a spinning, tilting, death-inducing mechanical mule. You’re currently in bright child mode.

Between bright child mode and death mule mode is the speed at which it is safest to land.

Take a look around and find that flat area. The longer and further away it is, the better. Remember I told you not to mess with the pedals? We’re going to mess with the pedals. Moving your foot no more than an inch, push the pedal that’s closest to the flat area. Don’t try doing it with the joystick. The joystick is many things for pilots, only forward for you. Once the flat area is straight ahead, push the other foot in no more than an inch. Everything should be stable. Now it’s time for magic.

The gripping conclusion to your escape in the next post.


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Self-Help: How to escape in a helicopter part I

Hey. you know that time you escaped from the evil mastermind's lair to the helipad, and there was a totally unguarded helicopter, blades spinning, but you realized you don't have a pilot's license so you had to walk home? I'm here to tell you that next time, you're riding in style. Also, stop talking to strangers.

The first important step is to determine if the helicopter is French*. Try sniffing. If you smell cheese, do the exact opposite of what I'm about to tell you with your feet, because the blades spin the wrong way.

Good. So you're sitting in the left or front seat of your American-made helicopter and its clockwise (looking up) spinning rotor. There's a stick on your left. That's the collective, it makes you go up and down.

There are one or two sticks between your legs, depending on physical gender. The bigger one is the joystick, and it makes you go forward because that's all you can handle right now.

There are pedals at your feet. They do a bunch of stuff you don't need to know about. Put your feet on the pedals, push until they're even, and keep your feet on them for the duration of the flight.

Now gently pull the collective up while pushing on your left* foot. Ignore the people shooting at you; if the mastermind had time to train them to shoot, they wouldn't have left the helicopter running and unguarded. Go slowly, because if you screw this up you're hamburger. If you've done it right, you've only spun a little to the right*, and you're a foot in the air.

Now gently push the joystick forward a little bit.

If you've got a bit of space, just keep it there until the helicopter rises off like a graceful bird. If you're in a mountain fortress, more collective and more left* pedal. Once you're above the trees, buildings, and terrain around you, pop open the champagne, champ, because you made it.

I'm just kidding about the champagne. Drinking and flying is a terrible idea. We'll deal with landing next time.

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