An Ode to SOS

I belong to a few different Veteran's forums, and recently someone mentioned that they had completed their tour of service without ever having tried the military's infamous SOS, which is an "affectionate" name for creamed ground beef over biscuits. The name is an acronym for (ahem) "Stuff on a Shingle," (although in Army parlance it's a different four-letter word instead of "stuff.")

SOS

Nevertheless, I thought that it might be fun to write a few words as an homage to one of the most-hated and yet most-loved dishes in the military cookbook. SOS may have tasted awful, but it was better than starving, and it taught me to be truly thankful for what I had.

I do not mean to sound so rude
By poking fun at Army food
But I have had their SOS
And can attest it's not the best
I've also had green eggs and ham
And a dozen types of mangled spam
I did not think those things existed
Until such time as I enlisted

My stomach now is ironclad
And can withstand when food is bad
If I sit back and reminisce
Those tasteless morsels I dismiss
Time, it seems, has helped to heal
My memories of horrid meals
Of MREs and old C-RATs
Which tasted more like stale, dried cat

The Army cooks, they tried their best
To create something we could digest
Suffice to say, we still survived
The food was bad, but we're alive
To bring my story to a close
I'd like to say before I go
That SOS may taste like crap
But it's better than a long, dirt nap

Smile

The Shrimp of my Father

Spanish is more or less the fourth language that I've learned, and recent experience has reminded me that I'm a little out of practice.

I was trying to tell my middlest daughter about Linda Ronstadt's "Canciones de mi Padre" album, but what I said was "Camarones de mi Padre."

Caramones-de-mi-Padre

While that may be amusing, it just isn't the same...

Open-mouthed smile

Happy Pi Day 2020!!!

A couple years ago I created a piece of music for "Pi Day" from the first 256 digits of Pi. I won't bother to go into the details for that experiment, save to say that I simply took the numbers from Pi and added those to a root note of a major scale and let the notes fall where they may. This was a pretty simple exercise, and I'd been kicking around an idea for a much better exercise ever since.

With that in mind, given the proximity to St. Patrick's day, I decided to create a new piece with an Irish feel.

Here's what I did for this experiment:

I chose to use a 5-note pentatonic scale instead of a 7-note major scale, and I did so because there are 10 numbers in our base 10 numbering system, and 2 x 5 = 10. With that in mind, in my first draft of this experiment, all of the notes in the piece were derived by using a pentatonic scale with a 2-octave range, and mapping the numbers 0 to 9 from the first 252 places of Pi to the 10 notes of the 2-octave scale. (I'll explain why I used 252 places of Pi later.) This first draft placed the piece within the range of an Irish Tin Whistle, and I chose the key of D Major since that's the predominant key for that instrument.

However, while I was entering the notes and listening to the playback, many of the notes were often too far apart from their surrounding notes, with very strange octave jumps, which made the whole piece sound random. With that in mind, I decided to use modulus division to cut the range in half, thereby forcing all of the notes into a 1-octave pentatonic scale. In other words, if a number from Pi was over 5, then I subtracted 5.

This change for my second draft of this experiment resulted in a much smaller scale of "D E F# A B" to work with, and the 1-octave scale fell within range of the bagpipes, so I added drones for "D A D" beneath the melody to add to the illusion of a piper playing. However, during playback with a bagpipe sample, something sounded weird: every time there were two notes of the same pitch next to each other, it sounded odd. I quickly realized that was because an Irish musician won't hold a note for two beats - they'll use ornamentation to separate the identical pitches so it doesn't sound like one continuous note.

My good friends Randy Clepper (www.randyclepper.com) and Mark Wade (www.markalanwade.com) have taught a lot of classes about Irish ornamentation. I leveraged some of the things that I learned from them, and I added "cuts" to each of the sections where there were two notes that needed to be separated. By way of explanation, a "cut" is when you play a quick grace note above the note that is in the melody line. So if you have a A followed by an A in the melody, you would play the first A of the melody, then jump up quickly and play a B before returning to the second A of the melody, making sure to land the second A of the melody on the beat where it belongs. (Depending on the instrument that you are playing, you would play a cut by playing the first A of the melody, then hit a grace note A before jumping to the grace note B, and returning to the second A of the melody. It's like a really fast triplet.) Once I added the Irish ornamentation throughout the piece, it contributed significantly to the Celtic feel.

The drum beat was another exercise in self-indulgence that was fun to do. Because this entire experiment is about math, I chose to create a "Slip Jig," because they're in a 9/8 time signature. Hardly anyone uses that time signature, but it added a lot of possibilities. The accents that I chose were based on the steps that Irish dancers would use for a Slip Jig, which are beats 1 3 4 6 7, which creates a | X - X X - X X - - | beat. Since I play bodhran, I added rolls where I might use them if I were playing in a session.

Lest I forget, the 9/8 time signature is the reason for using the first 252 places of Pi. In my previous Pi Day experiment, I used the first 256 places of Pi, because 256 is one of those golden geek numbers. Since I already had those numbers lying around, I divided 256 by the 9 from the time signature, which resulted in 28.4. I rounded that down to 28, which gave me the number of measures that I would create. So 28 measures of 9 notes each meant that I only needed 252 places for this experiment. (See? It's all so simple, isn't it?)

And last but not least, the 157 bpm tempo that I chose to use was derived from taking 314 (e.g. "3.14") and dividing by 2. ('Cause, you know - more math.)

Squirrels are Better than Birds

True story - when I lived in Seattle, I had a bird feeder hanging from a tree branch just outside my office window. But birds seldom used it, because squirrels kept raiding it. After a while, I decided that the squirrels were far more interesting than the birds, but I had to make it a challenge for them (and fun for me).

First I added one of the plastic semi-circular baffles to the feeder, which prevented the squirrels from climbing down from above. The squirrels learned to jump up from below the feeder using objects in my yard, so I moved the bird feeder a little higher, and then I watched with great amusement as the squirrels would continue to jump from the ground, but miss by a good distance. Then they would climb back up on the objects in my yard, and just stare at the feeder - as if to say, "Huh. That worked yesterday."

Then they learned that they could jump from the trunk of the tree and grab on with just one claw before crashing to the ground, but that was enough, and they resumed their raids. So I moved the feeder a little further out on the branch, and watched with great amusement as the squirrels would now fall far too short and hit the wall of my house with a dull thud. People would come in the office to talk to me and hear, "Clunk. ... Clunk. ... Clunk." They'd look at me quizzically, and I'd say, "Meh. It's just my squirrels."

After a while the squirrels learned that it wasn't going to work, so they'd climb the tree and just stare at the feeder, and I could tell that they were weighing every option available to them. Mind you, I kept refilling the feeder with store-bought squirrel food this entire time. Even though I was making life difficult for them, I was still trying to keep them well fed.

squirrel-stare-down

Eventually I noticed that the birds had returned, but by then I could not have cared less about them. Seeing birds on my feeder meant that my squirrels had been defeated, and my heart went out to them. After all, the squirrels had worked so hard for so long.

I decided to cut the squirrels a break, and I moved my feeder so that it was back in long distance jumping range for them. I never saw the birds again, but that didn't bother me at all - because almost every day from then on I saw a squirrel hanging on the feeder upside down by one claw. We'd make eye contact for a moment, and I knew they were grateful. Or annoyed. One can never be too sure with a squirrel.

English isn't English

A colleague recently reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's famous quote that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." I have lived through many situations where I have experienced that sentiment firsthand. And with that in mind, I'd like to share a story about a conversation that I had when I was working with the British RAF:

RAF: "You troffing today?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Yamming?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Nose-bagging?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Scoffing?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Bucking & gagging?"

ME: O_o

RAF: "Are you eating lunch?"

ME: "Yes."

It's a New Year with the Same Warped Sense of Humor

I joined the Army in early 1986, at which time the following dark humor marching/running cadence was in prominent use:

A yellow bird / With a yellow bill
Landed on / My window sill
I lured him in / With a piece of bread
And then I smashed / His yellow head

Although to be perfectly honest, the original cadence didn't say "his yellow head;" instead, it used a more-colorful expression with the same number of syllables. But this is a public forum, so I'll stick to the sanitized version here.

Nevertheless, an unfortunate mishap occurred at my house recently: a tiny yellow bird flew into one of my windows, and - tragically - died as a result. However, when I discovered his demise, my first instinct wasn't to clean up the carnage. Instead, I grabbed my camera and a half-piece of bread and took the following picture, which I uploaded to a veterans' group on Facebook with the caption: "This guy landed on my window sill today... it didn't end well for him."

Now at first glance, this might seem rather… morbid. However, my fellow veterans immediately recognized my joke, and they posted comments like the following:

  • "His head seems intact. I'm confused."
  • "I see you lured him in with a piece of bread."
  • "You MUST finish what you started... CRUSH HIS ******* HEAD!!! "

They also replied with images like the following:

yellow-bird-knows
yellow-bird-grenade

One dark example of veteran humor was answered by dozens of darker examples of veteran humor. Once again, this behavior might seem somewhat disturbed to the casual observer, but none of the people involved in the ensuing discussion were sociopaths; most of them were happily married, with great jobs/careers, and selflessly devoted to their kids and grandkids. With that in mind, a short examination of the dichotomy between what veterans might find amusing versus what "acceptable society" might find amusing is worth discussing.

Here is another example of what many veterans find funny:

mushroom-cloud

I have to admit, I literally laughed out loud when I first saw that image; I honestly thought that was one of the funniest cartoons I had seen in a long time. However, when I showed it to my wife, she didn't find it funny. In fact, her comment was, "That's kind of sad…" And as I thought about our different reactions to the same image, I realized why veterans see things differently: we have learned to laugh at death. Not death itself, mind you, but the concept of death. We have to; we'd go crazy if we didn't, and I'll explain why.

The longer you serve in the military, you will eventually have to face death. This will rarely be your imminent demise, although that occasionally happens. But sooner or later you will have to survive the death of a friend or acquaintance, or you will have to come to terms with the fact that what you're doing is likely going to get you killed. Both of those realities are extremely difficult concepts for any sane person to deal with.

In an attempt to deal with the stress of these likely scenarios, most active service members of the military will employ the following coping mechanisms: toxic sarcasm and a dark sense of humor. This may seem strange and/or counter-productive to outsiders, but contrary to common sense - developing a cynical worldview helps service members successfully grapple with the subject of death. Learning to laugh at the inevitability of facing death in some form or other makes time in military service a little more endurable.

When veterans leave the service, their dark senses of humor follow them home; much like having a psychotic ex-lover stalk you across the country. But this is why I love hanging out in the veterans' groups on Facebook: I love seeing that there are others who still see things as I do. My sense of humor may be warped and distorted, but there are others who share that same warped and distorted sense of humor.

In short, other veterans "Get Me." They understand me. They share the same irreverent contempt for death that I do. Or to rephrase a famous idiom, "Fate whispers to the warrior, 'You cannot withstand the storm.' The warrior whispers back, 'You could really use a breath mint.'"

When Your Heroes Grow Old

I grew up listening to Yes - they were some of my original music heroes, long before I got into bands like Rush. That being said, I am profoundly aware of that fact that as I grow older, my heroes are growing older, too. But some of us aren't aging that gracefully.

Just the other day I saw the following photo of Steve Howe from a recent Yes tour:

Steve-Howe

I hate to say it, but the first thing I thought of was the Crypt-Keeper from the old Tales from the Crypt television series:

Crypt-Keeper

Now that you've seen that, you cannot unsee it. You're welcome.

Surprised smile Open-mouthed smile

Always Remember to Shave in the Army

I attended the USAREUR Air Assault School in 1988, and one of the cadets failed to shave one morning.

He was ordered to dry shave while standing on a stump that was placed in front of the entire class, and he was required to loudly lecture everyone on the merits of daily shaving, while the rest of the class stood at parade rest.

At one point, the following conversation took place:

"Roster Number 30!!! Are you bleeding???"

"Yes, Air Assault First Sergeant!!! Blood helps lubricate the blade!!!"

After which the guy's squad leader was order to kneel next to the stump and catch any blood in his cupped hands, lest any blood hit the ground and desecrate the surrounding area.

Tales of Christmas Past…

In ancient days of yore, constable Ioan McClane (of the clan McClane) routed the Visigoth Hans von Gruber from the prodigious citadel of Nakatomi...

Die-Hard-Medieval-Tapestry

Gaffes of the Galaxy

My wife was shopping for Guardians of the Galaxy toys to donate to charity, and the following conversation took place:

Kathleen: So, I was going to buy Star Lord, Groot, and Ranger.
Me: Ranger?
Kathleen: Yeah, you know - the squirrel.
Me: You mean Rocket? The raccoon?
Kathleen: Yeah, that's the one.
Me: o_O