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Archive for November, 2012

Whenever I finish a novel, even if it’s a first draft, I feel like I’ve just snorted a line of coke as long as a baseball bat, and topped it off with a couple bowls of crystal meth. I’ve never done those drugs, but, why would I? Apparently, all I have to do to get their effects is crank out a novel.

I”m not sure what causes it. Maybe it’s the fact that all the novel’s ideas, scenes, and dialogue have finally been liberated from my brain, and committed to something more static than the sparks between my neurons. Maybe it’s the burden of obligation to write lifted from my shoulders. Maybe it’s an ego stroke.

On the day I finish a novel, I walk around like an idiot, grinning, absent-minded, replaying the written scenes in my head, and eagerly snapping up reviews and opinions from others. Sometimes, it feels like I’m walking on air, or I’m in love. Maybe I’m in love with the creation I’d poured so much of myself into.

I just finished my novel for National Novel Writing Month this morning at 2:30. It’s rough around the edges, in some spots the names of characters change spelling, and in others, the typos jump off the page more than the action. But, it’s a cohesive story. All the loose ends are tied together in the end, with a prolonged and satisfying climax. “It is finished.”

I’m gonna ride this high all weekend, and then it will fade by Monday. The only way to get another fix is to finish another novel. Or sell this one.

Bring it on.

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Toiletbowl Tone Lock

Any guy who’s ever seen an air combat movie such as ‘Top Gun’ or ‘Iron Eagle,’ knows about tone lock. That’s the sound that the air-to-air missile makes as it locks onto an enemy’s heat signature. As Tom Cruise jockeys for position on the MIG’s six, the warhead’s tone lock is going: ‘beep beep beep BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.’ Once you hear the tone lock, he fires the missile.

This strikingly similiar to how men use the bathroom at night.

Tone lock is something all men are familiar with, because they learn it from childhood. When you find yourself in the bathroom at night, you don’t always turn on the light. Or even if you do turn on the light, it’s blinding, and you can barely see. So you stand in the usual spot, aim, fire, and listen for the tone. Silence: Adjust fire, slowly. Slight hiss: Getting warm. Slight trickle: Close to target. A deep, pouring sound means you have tone lock, and can fire away.

Any warmth on the legs means cease fire.

Often, leaning forward with one hand on the wall helps close the gap, and ensure a clean shot. This brings me to the Mandle.

The Mandle is the porcelain bathroom fixture that has yet to be invented. Many times in a bathroom, there will be a darker-than-usual spot on the wall, above and to the left of the back of the toilet. This is where a guy might seek toilet support while urinating. There should be a handle there. Or, more accurately: A Mandle. I’m kind of thinking it would be a large knob, like the top of a pistle. That way, you don’t have to get the wall dirty, or risk knocking a picture off in the dark.

 

 

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How to Shoot People. (In Movies.)

Using a firearm in a movie is a great way to increase the drama of a scene. For some genres, like war, or action, firearms are almost mandatory in every scene. But the big difference in their use between the war and action genres is that in war films they’re props, and in action movies they are there to heighten tension with the threat (or promise) of violence.

Over the decades of gun use in movies and television, a convention on how to use to shoot people has been developed. It’s now clichéd and old, but it never changes, so here’s a quick guide on how to shoot people and use guns (In movies).

1.)    ‘Cocking’

Once a character has withdrawn a firearm, the threat has reached a plateau. But there is one more step a character can do to escalate the tension a bit more, without actually discharging the firearm, and that’s to cock the weapon. Cocking the weapon, be it pulling the hammer back on a revolver, or pumping a round into the chamber on a shotgun, is a little action move with the familiar sound of steel sliding and clicking. It gets the viewer’s attention.

But. You will certainly never see a character remove the safety from a firearm as a means of increasing tension, because that’s just a little move of the finger, and the safety is much quieter than cocking the weapon. It’s more realistic to remove the safety than cock it, but, oh well.

In many movies, ‘cocking’ will happen up to half a dozen times before a round goes off. It’s as if no bad guy in the world carries a live round in the chamber of their weapon. Sometimes, they will cock their weapon multiple times in one scene, but the weapon never ejects an unspent round. I’ve seen some bad action movies in which a shotgun is cocked six times before it’s fired.

2.)    How Bullets Work

The thing about how bullets work in movies is simple: They do more damage to non-living objects than they do in real life, and they do less damage to living objects than they do in real life. This way, a .357 Magnum can be used to blow up a car by shooting it in the gas tank, Dirty Harry (1971) and a .357 Magnum used by someone to shoot themselves in the head just makes a small hole with a drip of blood coming out. Eraser (1996).

In reality, shooting a .357 Magnum into the gas tank of a car would do nothing but put a hole through it. The car would drive away until it leaked out all its gas. Likewise, in reality, a .357 Magnum fired through the mouth of a suicide victim would leave a gaping hole in the back of the head and a river of blood coming out the front via the eyes, nose, and mouth.

3.)    The Best Places to Get Shot

A person with the slightest understanding of how the human body works, when asked where they would most prefer to get shot, would say, ‘Nowhere.’

However, most people in the Western world have witnessed dozens, if not hundreds (dare I say thousands?)  of gunshot wounds and injuries thanks to their screen time. From this, they have most definitely learned that there are preferable places to get shot. Perhaps the people who write action scenes, too, have learned from Hollywood the best places to take a bullet.

The best place for your hero to take a bullet is in the shoulder, between the shoulder joint and the neck, and right beneath the clavicle. This ensures that the bullet hits somewhere on the body, but not anywhere where anything will get seriously injured.

Other places to get shot safely include: Either foot. The thigh. On the edge of the abdomen. The arm. And, in Fight Club (1999) you can even shoot yourself in the mouth, and you’ll be ok as long as the bullet exits through your cheek. Heck, you won’t even bleed that much.

This is all, naturally, bullshit.

The human body is an extremely efficient device. There isn’t an inch of wasted space on it. And if there is, that’s your waist, storing food for bad times. So that’s not even wasted.

(Getting shot in ‘the fat folds,’ in which the bullet never hits a major artery, nerve, muscle, or bone, but only performs a kind of supersonic hydraulic shock liposuction, never, ever, happens.)

The problem with getting shot in the ‘safe zone’ of the upper pectoral muscle, beneath the clavicle, is that that area contains a very thick artery that feeds your right (or left) arm, along with a thick bundle of nerves that controls the entire arm, as well as a bunch of minor arteries going everywhere. It also is home to the muscles that allow your shoulder to remain upright. And any shot in that area is sure to absolutely pulverize the scapula. If it goes a tiny bit further in, it pierces the top of the lung. Nothing like a sucking chest wound to slow down an action hero.

But, when the movie hero gets shot in the safe zone, they usually just grin and bear it until they get a bandage. In reality, they wouldn’t be able to move their arm, they would be racked by immense pain, and they would be bleeding to death and / or dying of shock. They could also have a perforated lung, meaning that when the diaphragm tries to draw air into the lungs, it comes in (and exits) through a hole in your chest.

But, we can always increase dramatic tension by shooting someone in the foot. Then they have to limp, right?

Wrong. The foot has more bones in it than any other limb on your body except your hand. Actually, it has more than your hand. None of them are like your appendix – you need every single one. If even a few of those tiny bones are smashed by a speeding bullet, the foot will not operate normally – most likely, ever again. And certainly not without major surgery. The hero won’t even be able to put any weight on it. If you even lose your little toe, you have to majorly rearrange the way you walk and balance yourself.

How about the thigh? Well, the thigh is home to several major muscle groups, all of which look like big ‘meaty’ targets for a bullet to go through without actually messing up the hero too bad. However, the thigh is a bad contender for the ‘shoot me here’ award. Not only is its only bone, the femur, the very thing that keeps you standing, but all of those muscles take a lot of blood. That means there are a lot of arteries and veins there. You also have a highway of blood going right next to the thigh called the femoral artery. You might recall Black Hawk Down (2004) in which a Ranger dies because a bullet severs his femoral artery, and a field medic cannot clamp it shut. That’s probably the most realistic way a movie has ever shown a thigh shot, because it was a true story.

How about the near-suicide shot in Fight Club?

I can’t even imagine the trauma that would be caused by shooting a bullet through your cheek at point-blank range. No  – actually having the muzzle of the gun inside your mouth. The thing is, guns don’t shoot just bullets. Guns also shoot highly-pressurized incandescent gas expanding at many times the speed of sound. That’s what propels the bullet. That’s what makes the ‘big bang,’ and the muzzle flash. You might recall that pressure and heat go together. Thus, anything in the vicinity of a muzzle when a bullet is fired – like a human mouth – is going to get a supersonic, superheated muzzle blast – along with a bullet. If you want to know what the guy would look like after shooting himself through the cheek, well, just imagine Harvey Dent’s cheek from The Dark Knight. You know, with the big hole in it, and only his mandible tendon connecting? Make that both cheeks. Hell, it might even kill him due to the shock of the pressure going down into his lungs, and blasting up and through his sinuses. It could even destroy his eardrums – blowing them from the inside out. He might live, but Edward Norton wouldn’t be in any shape to get up and stand with Helen Bonham-Carter and watch the corporate credit world implode.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

4.)    How People Act When Shot

Getting shot is kind of like having a Double-A battery pushed through your body by a locomotive, except it happens as fast as a summer storm lightning strike. If you are shot by something within a few feet, you’re going to get seriously burned, too, from the muzzle-flash thingy we talked about. There’s other stuff in a round besides a bullet. There’s ‘wadding’ which protects the bullet from the charge, and there’s the charge itself, which mostly burns up, but not entirely. So when you shoot someone really close, their clothes or flesh get burned and spotted by the superheated, burning charge, along with the impact of the wadding. This is besides the hole from the bullet, that is.

Now, when you shoot a minor bad guy, the rule is simple: They die immediately. They might make a little ‘grunt’ of pain on their way to the floor, but that’s it. One shot, one kill.

If you shoot a minor nice guy, you can have them cry about it a little more, and maybe a medium range shot of their face in agony, but only for a split second.

If you shoot a medium-level bad guy, they probably shouldn’t die with one shot. It’s best to give them a couple shots. Often the handy thing to do is shoot them so they drop to their knees in pain, look up at the good guy, and he sends them off with a one-liner and a second shot.

If you shoot a medium-level good guy, you usually want them to die after they take down a couple low-to-medium level bad guys. The can have a close up. Usually they want their wife and kids to know they love them.

If you shoot a top-level bad guy, a boss, it will NOT kill him. It will only wound him so that he then has the chance to be killed in a more brutal, unusual, and deservedly dramatic fashion. Like, getting crushed by a falling shipping container Eraser (1996) or blown out into the low-pressure atmosphere of Mars to die of horrible asphyxiation Total Recall (1990).

Breaking this convention has been used to great comedic effect in Austin Powers (1997) in which Dr. Evil’s henchman Mustafa is offscreen. Before Dr. Evil can continue with his master plan, he’s waiting for the ‘bang’ of a gunshot to signify the clean execution of Mustafa. But, after the ‘bang,’ Dr. Evil is interrupted by Mustafa’s rant: “Ow! You shot me! You shot me right in the leg! Why would you do this!”

Guns are not the best way to kill people in action movies. Not the best people, anyway. Guns only finish the minor guys. The only real exception is in sniper movies, where the bad guy has to be shot in the head by a high-powered rifle, be it at long range Sniper (1993) or short range Enemy at the Gates (2000). Other times, though, you want the main bad guy and the main good guy to fire at each other for the whole movie, and then at the end the bad guy takes a human shield and says, “Ok, Arnie, put down the gun or she gets it!” And then the hero does a turnabout, and kills the bad guy without a gun.

5.)    Spontaneous Protection from Gunfire

There are many ways an action hero can avoid being shot. Well, shot to death, that is. The first, of course, is the bulletproof vest. The first use of the spontaneous bulletproof vest was probably Fistful of Dollars (1964) in which the antihero uses the top of a steel stove beneath his poncho. Of course, the deadeye rifle shot firing at him didn’t realize his target was immortal until he ran out of bullets. He should have just shifted his aim to the space between his enemy’s eye. At least after three shots.

Extemporaneous bulletproofing of the body was also done in Batman (1988), when Michael Keaton’s Mr. Wayne put a silver tray under his shirt before walking into certain death.

Another way you can bulletproof a hero is by giving him or her a keepsake that they like to wear in their breast pocket, like a silver whiskey flask, a thick pocket Bible with mysterious metal covers, etc. These are great because they can protect your hero from a center of mass kill shot. As long as the bad guy doesn’t check their pulse, that is. But for awhile, the drama is there because the hero looks like he’s toast.

Body armor. The truth is, bulletproof vests are actually portrayed somewhat realistically in most movies. This is because the actual events that occur when someone wearing one gets shot fit well into dramatic scenarios. A bulletproof vest like the ones in most movies, made to be worn beneath street clothes, is a fibrous material that ‘stops’ a bullet, but the force of the bullet itself is transmitted to the wearer. If you recall my analogy of the Double-A battery pushed through your by a locomotive, you can imagine that getting shot while wearing a vest is highly uncomfortable. It’s akin to being hit with a sledge hammer swung by a Major League batter. Bones can break. Bruises will certainly form. The target might be knocked down, not so much by the bullet – the bullet transmits the same amount of force to the recipient as it does to the shooter, but by the shock and surprise of taking a bullet, and the impact of that bullet’s point.

This works for drama because the audience, or reader, might not know for certain that the hero was wearing a bulletproof vest. Even if they suspect he or she was, they have to wait a few seconds while this is revealed. The bad guy will usually assume they didn’t have a vest, and run off, giving a short break to the action.

A great use of guns and bulletproof vests was in Point Break (1991), easily one of the best action movies of the 90s. Woah – Keanu Reeves starred in the first awesome action movie of that decade, and the last: The Matrix (1999). But in Point, his undercover FBI agent takes some awesome shots right to the chest, and writhes in agony as he recovers from the impact transmitted to his torso through his vest. Likewise, Patrick Swayze gets blown straight off a bank teller counter by a shot that hit him square on, and survives due to his vest. However, their compatriot Roach died a slow, leaky death from the shots he took without his vest (later dying of blood loss and shock – completely different from the usual low-level bad guy death) and Agent Utah’s mentor dies an atypical death from point-blank shotgun fire to the chest. (His last words were just ‘Utah…’)

Now that I think of it, The Matrix had a great mix of the usual gunfire deaths, along with the awesome demise of Neo, who took about 15 rounds, point blank, to the chest, from a .50 caliber Desert Eagle pistol. And to top it off, Agent Smith ordered his henchman to ‘check him,’ meaning to check the pulse!  Despite the bloody carnage that had been Neo’s chest, the henchman obeyed, and smugly reported, “He’s gone.”

But of course, what happened next cannot happen in any other movie, ever again.

Other  means of protection include: Ducking behind cover (naturally) or standing behind cover, as Tom Arnold did in True Lies (1995) when he stood behind a steel I-beam to avoid being shot by the 7.62x39mm rounds from an AK-47. But we can’t dismiss the best spontaneous protection from gunfire, which was never shown on screen until Total Recall – the human shield. It’s often best to use a corpse as a human shield, but if a corpse is not handy, just use a bad guy, by handling his body with some martial arts move. However, since human shields are actually alive, or just were, you have to use some rules with them. They can’t be women or children.

Well, actually, they can be women or children, as long as it’s a bad guy using them as a human shield. And if it’s a child human shield, you know the bad guy will get away.

There’s also dodging bullets. Though this was done famously in The Matrix, it’s actually the usual fare – the target runs, dodges and turns, and bullets plink all around him. This is, in some ways, realistic, because hitting a moving target can be incredibly difficult, given some circumstances. But when the hero uses dodging to escape a pistol pointed directly at him, it’s pretty unrealistic – a real cop out. A great example of an impossible dodge move is from A History of Violence, (2005) in which Vigo Mortgenson’s character escapes from the pistol sights of his old boss by getting up and running will dodging and turning like a running back returning a punt. That was pretty insane, but then again he was Aragorn.

You also have disarmament – having the hero snatch the gun from their enemy, which also is a nice way of bringing a turnabout, like in The Book of Eli (2009), or in The Matrix when Carrie-Ann Moss’ Trinity flips a soldier’s shotgun around and dispatches him with it. However, the fact that she shot directly into his bulletproof vest didn’t prevent his instant death, which leads us to a side note on the use of bulletproof vests: For minor characters, bulletproof vests or body armor are just costumes. They have all the bullet-stopping power of paper bags.

The combination of dodging bullets and disarming, or, blocking (by manually sweeping away an enemy’s pistol) was actually conceptualized as a martial art called ‘Gun Kata’ in Equilibrium (2002), performed by a special class of government agent called a Grammaton Cleric, who worked for the Tetragrammaton. (The fact that the Tetragrammaton is actually the technical word for the Biblical ‘name’ of God -YAWHEH – has nothing to do with the movie, except it’s an awesome-sounding word.)

Your hero can also jump into water. Water doesn’t, of course, block bullets. But, bullets slow down very fast in water. They also make very dramatic trails of bubbles from the bullets’ cavitation. You can always chalk up the misses to the lack of visibility. Sometimes you get shot underwater. Actually, that’s only happened once on-screen, in Saving Private Ryan (1998), but then again, that was a real story. Most of the time the hero swims away through a stream of cavitating bullet trails, like in, well, too many movies to name.

What water never protects a hero from, however, is the shockwave transmitted through water by an explosion. This is absolutely devastating. But, I’m getting off track again.

6.)    Sidenote: Ricochets

Ricochets are a minor, but significant, source of gunshot wounds that have only been used as a cause of death in a very small number of movies. This is because it’s difficult to use ricochets to dramatic effect – death by ricochet is much less deliberate a death delivery method than aiming and shooting. However, it was used in Iron Man (2008) when a minor bad guy tried to execute Tony Stark as he wore his prototype Iron Man body armor, with a point-blank shot to his helmet, but was instead killed when the bullet ricocheted into his own, unarmored, head. A ricochet was also used to comedic effect in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in which an entire tank full of enemies was taken out by one shot bouncing around the interior of the steel-walled combat vehicle.

7.)    Blinking

When you are using a firearm, the worst time to blink is when the gun goes off. This is because you will momentarily lose sight of your target, and you will not see where your shot hit. You want to keep your eyes open through the moment when the gun goes off. This goes against your body’s instinct to flinch, and blink, when a large explosion goes off near your face, which is essentially what happens when you pull the trigger on a live round.

However, most of the time, you will see your favorite actor or actress blinking – even squeezing their eyes shut – when they pull the trigger. You can see it even better in slow-motion firefights.

The best example of this is Mila Jovovich when she plays Alice in the endless Resident Evil series of zombie movies. Alice has been blinking and squinting her way through firefights – some of which last for 89 of the 90 minutes in the movie – since the early 2000s.

Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t love Mila Jovovich. I love her even more because you can see that while she’s playing Alice in these endless movies, she’s really trying her best to do a great part in a crappy (but oddly entertaining) B movie. It doesn’t help that 90% of those movies are done on a green screen, which is why it never really looks like she’s actually in the environment she’s in. (You can always tell by how her gaze is never quite on the action, that someone is telling her, “Ok, Mila, now, you’re aiming both your pistols at a giant half-human, half-rhinoceros zombie, and you’re shooting it the head, and, you’re shooting, shooting… Jump out of the way!”)

But what I mean to say, is that ever since she started using guns, no one told her to keep her eyes open when they’re going off.

8.)    Dual-Wielding Weapons

There’s a reason why you never see professional gun-wielding warriors, like the members of Delta Force, or the Navy SEALS, walking around with a pistol in each hand, and that’s because dual-wielding is stupid. The only movie to ever have dual-wielding in a semi-plausible way was Under Siege (1990) in which Steven Seagal’s Navy commander was walking down a narrow corridor, with bad guys to the front, and bad guys in the rooms on his left. So he walked with one pistol pointed forward, and one pointed left, held over the forearm of the gun pointed forward, while he searched for targets in a temporary situation.

But, the problem with dual wielding is that winning a gunfight or coming out alive in a shooting scenario requires great accuracy. It’s impossible to aim with two guns at the same time, and it’s more stable to hold one gun with two hands. You also have to reload a gun sometimes, and this requires two hands. Dual-wielding firearms only works in movies.

It looks awesome, though.

Especially in the climax of Equilibrium, in which Christian Bale’s Cleric Preston simply hoses down scores of enemy soldiers with an automatic pistol in each hand.

9.)    Disarming Shots

Sometimes a hero will disarm a bad guy by shooting a gun out of his hand. Yeah, I suppose it can happen – people win the lottery, too.

10.)   Sighting a rifle

We just watched Get the Gringo (2012) the other night. While it was great, it had its own magical firearms, like any movie. One of the magical firearms was a sniper rifle. Now, Mel Gibson’s character was an ex-sniper, and he was a good shot. However, the un-cinematic truth is that a rifle has to be ‘zeroed,’ or, its sights adjusted, for the individual shooter. This is best done on range of known distance, and there’s a procedure for it for each rifle. Basically, the shooter will use a stable firing position to shoot the weapon, and once they are certain they are getting a good group (meaning that the shooter is using proper form to fire accurately) they will adjust the weapon’s sights so that it fires true. The reason that it’s a little different for every person is because everyone holds their weapon a tiny bit differently.

If the rifle is not zeroed, its accuracy will suffer. But, you never see this in a movie. For all intents and purposes, every gun in every movie is capable of shooting straight.

You also never see a person cleaning a gun in a movie. The truth is that if you’re rolling around in the dirt with a weapon, the weapon is just a magnet for mud, leaves, sticks, small animals – you name it. Ever try to sight a target when there’s a dead leaf smashed into the front sight post? You might as well be wearing a blindfold.

11.) First-Person Aiming

Movies often show the first-person view through a sniper scope. Everyone knows what that looks like – from a movie perspective, anyway. But the thing the movie cannot show is that what you see through a sniper scope is still damn small. A person at 600 yards away might look like nothing but a tiny black dot in some bushes, and the sniper would realize that the tiny black dot is an enemy’s hat. But this doesn’t work cinematically, because film lacks the ability to convey the idea that the tiny black dot is an enemy. So, targets always look huge when they’re seen in the first-person sniper scope view in a movie. They look so big that the target is actually in iron sight range.

There is one movie – just one – that I’ve ever seen that shows what it looks like when a shooter is peering through the iron sights of a weapon, and that movie is Casualties of War (1986). During a firefight, Michael J. Fox’s character is looking through the sights of his M-16. The film clearly shows the rear sight ring and the front sight post, it shows the soldier trying to line up his sights and put them on moving targets, and the targets that he’s aiming at are so far away that the front sight post covers the targets. (Even though ‘far’ is only about 300 meters, in this case.) This is all done to great dramatic effect, because it shows what a difficult job that actually is, but because the camera shot was so unconventional, I have a feeling only veterans know what was being conveyed.

Bonus: Bows and Arrows

Some people would rather be shot with a gun that a bow. At least, shot with a razor-blade arrowhead fired from a compound bow. That’s because while guns kill from massive trauma to bodily organs and / or the central nervous system and / or brain and / or exsanguinations, arrows kill almost solely through exsanguinations. That means bleeding to death. This can take awhile, and is in contrast to the quick deaths by arrow shown in almost any movie.

An important aspect of arrows is the warhead. There are two major types: Bodkins, which are points, and broadheads, which are the flat, sharp, wide triangles. Bodkins penetrate armor, and were used in warfare until firearms took over all ranged fighting. Bodkins won Agincourt. Broadheads cut blood vessels, and are equally effective at cutting down either game, or fleeing, unarmored peasants.

Well, just keep in mind that whenever you see Robin Hood, or Geronimo, or Katness Everdeen, taking down enemies with an arrow, that death by arrow is a slow, painful affair in which the victim bleeds to death. Sometimes, bleeding to death can take days. There’s lots of groaning and yelling involved. But death by arrows is in movies is always clean and fast – the exact opposite of how it is in real life. Unless you happen to sever someone’s carotid artery with a speeding broadhead.

Oh – one note about arrows in movies. Sometimes, they show them moving in slow motion. The arrow should be spinning, just like a bullet. The arrow’s fins are at a slight angle to impart spin, because spin creates stability. The Book of Eli has a slow-motion arrow flight in the beginning of the movie, but the arrow doesn’t spin.

Another weakness of arrows in movies is that the archers always have a never-ending supply of arrows. In the movie Prince Caspian, (2008) Susan’s quiver never goes empty – it always has three or four arrows in it. Well, maybe it was magical. Oh well.

Well, ta ta for now. In the meantime, try not to get shot. Maybe you should learn Gun Kata.

Christian Bale’s as Preston in the climax of ‘Equilibrium.’

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Even twenty years after you graduate from boot camp, you’ll remember how the Marine Corps smells.

I come across them all the time.

A couple years ago, I bought a military surplus M-16 cleaning kit as a gift for my stepdad, to go with the AR-15 rifle he’d bought for himself. As soon as I held the cleaning kit, the smell of unchained hydrocarbons from CLP (Cleaning, Lubricant, and Preservative (fancy military name for ‘gun oil’)) flew up my nose, and in an instant I was, in my mind, spreading my disassembled M16A2 service rifle out on a nylon blanket that they issued us. The blanket had all the profiles of the weapon’s parts, but you usually memorized them in a day, anyway.

That smell made me feel the weapon in my hands. The safety / burst selector switch under your right thumb. The smooth crook of the pistol grip between your thumb and index finger. I heard it, too. The neat ‘click’ of the ejection port cover going home. The sliding rasp of a magazine. The angry ‘pang!’ of the recoil spring when it’s shoved back and locked in the ready position after the last round in the magazine is fired.

The eye-smarting smell of ammonia from the propellant is something you never get from anything but firing those rounds.

That wasn’t the only time a Marine Corps smell hit me hard.

The smell of diesel exhaust always puts me in a HUMVEE.

The oily smell of tent canvas puts me back into a half-shelter.

The smell of a new cotton t-shirt reminds me of the sleep-deprived nightmare of the early morning when eighty newly-arrived recruits and me were fitted to freshly-printed camoflauge uniforms, and given two kinds of boots to wear: green-and-black jungles, or black cadillacs (patent leather combat boots).

The smell of shoe polish (Kiwi) – I know most people don’t use it these days – is a a good acquaintence of my nose when I shine up my boots and shoes, a habit I had since Parris Island.

Actually, someone said that black Cadillacs aren’t even issued anymore.

We had to shine our brass in boot camp. We used this stuff called ‘Brasso,’ an acid-based cleaner that smells like it’s tunneling holes through your neurons. I inherited some antique brass candlesticks a couple years ago, and bought some of the stuff to shine them up. Pouring Brasso from its metal can onto a rag made me remember, for the first time, having all my uniform brass laid out on a clean towel, while the entire squadbay smelled like a chemical waste disposal facility as we scrubbed away with Brasso. You had to take your buckle off your web belt to clean it, but the buckle tip didn’t come off. You had to just clean it on the canvas belt, and be careful not to smeat the canvas with Brasso, or it would turn green. Marines wear a lot of green, but the canvas belt had to stay brown. You had to clean your brass Eagle, Globe, and Anchor insignias that went on your dress blues. And your tie clip that went on your Alphas.

Today is the Marine Corps Birthday. Nov. 10th. My first Marine Corps Birthday was spent on Parris Island, as a recruit. I thought it was pretty funny that the Marine Corps gave itself a cake. I believe it was the 217th birthday, when I was there. We also got steak and lobster. If you can choose when to go to boot camp, I’d say do it from September through Christmas. You get to pig out on Halloween (candy always floods the platoon, one way or another) the Marine Corps Birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Even the kids on half rations got to pig out.

Today, my wife bakes me a cake for my Marine Corps Birthday. This is the third cake she’s made for me.

I’m going to give my son his first piece.

Someday he’s going to ask me about the Marines. I’m going to tell him how the Marine Corps smells, and how those smells stick with you for the rest of your life.

Happy Birthday, Teufelhunden.

 

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I’ll just come out and ostracize all who still consider me somewhat likeable by advocating for a dicatorship in this country. The truth is, democracy, despite what they tell you in school, is a pile of garbage. Among the many charms of nose-counting (as the Imperial Chinese called it) are the precedents of nations imploding because of the infinite feed troth promised to constituents and lobbyists, a fact that every United States Citizen is now facing when we consider that we all, regardless of age, owe a public debt of around a quarter million dollars. How long before it implodes, and technocrats come in to impose austerity to solve us naughty Americans of our debt problem, ala Greece and Italy?

My favorite reason why democracy sucks is the fact that personal politics are so important to people that they let them decide whether or not to sustain decades-long friendships. Yes, the political propaganda we receive is so powerful that the choice to cast a ballot for psychotic politician A vs. politician B – once every four years – determines who you can be friends with. And did I mention that politicians are lying, psychotic nutjobs who barely maintain the mask of sanity? Yeah. People get so wrapped up in their useless vote fantasy that they’d rather make out with the politician’s face on a shiny plastic direct mail brochure than maintain a friendship with someone they’ve known their whole lives.

You see, the beauty of a dictatorship is that your vote doesn’t count. So, it doesn’t matter what you believe about politics. You’re as powerless as the next person. So, friendships with your fellow citiznes aren’t distracted by deep personal convictions over petty crap.

I believe in America. And I believe the best way to restore this country is through the creation of a Grande American Royal Imperial Family. You don’t think it’ll work? Get real – the press and public wet their pants with glee over the concept of a Kennedy Camelot. The Royal Family of Great Britain has never gone out of style. And, the Americans already court a whole suite of royalty: movie stars.

The solution is clear. We don’t need the authorization of the president. We don’t need an act of Congress. We will create our Grande American Royal Imperial Family through a privately-funded reality TV show. The contestants will be forty women and forty men. Their end goal will be to be get to one contestant each who will be crowned Empress and Emperor, and the season finale will be their marriage and the establishment of the Royal Court. The reality TV show funding them will support them for life, with a stipend, and they will live out their lives as the Grande American Royal Imperial Family.

Who would these contestants be? I would guess a range of paupers and princes, high-school dropouts, and PhDs. They represent our diverse nation in ethnicity and heritage. Will our Empress be black, or white? Will the Emperor be the combat veteran, or the millionaire’s son? What? Is he really interested in that goodie-two-shoes chick? (You know it’s just a facade, she’s a backstabbing liar!)

The fact that they don’t have official government titles will mean nothing. There isn’t a single Hollywood star with a royal title, yet they’re all treated like royalty. Can you imagine if they were given titles? As long as our Empress and Emperor are sexy, photogenic, charismatic, and love drama, the American people will be their willing subjects. And, just wait for season two, when the princes and princesses start arriving.

The great thing about this is that the reality TV format really lets you see these people at their worst. While the presidential campaign format always holds an air of reserved dignity for our political gods, the exposure of contestants in Grande American Royal Imperial Family will be transparent. They’ll also be a heckuvalot better looking in their dramatic elimination competitions than middle-agers squabbling over the six percent of the population that gets them elected.

And, the best thing about choosing the Empress and Emperor of the USA will be that it’s a vote everyone will be able to submit, via their phones, ala ‘American Idol.’

Eventually, the Royal Imperial Family will be so much more popular than those old farts in the government that we will submit ourselves to the commands of our beautiful, youthful dictators. And, we’ll all be happier with our Cleopatras and Mark Antonys in charge, because we all get to be actors in this reality show.

Show me what democracy looks like!

America has spoken: Your new Empress!

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So, in a very roundabout way, we lied on our mortgage application, without lying. When you submit your incomes, they don’t ask you about your future income expectations. So in our case, we submitted an application with two incomes, but we were expecting that any day we would have a baby (or at least, she would – I was starting to expect a coronary at this point) and we would just be on my one income. But, we knew this, which is why we were aiming for a house that was selling at $69,900, and putting over 20% down. Our mortgage would be a couple hundred bucks a month, and we could manage that on my wage job.

So we // lied // omitted two things: We were going on one income once we had the baby, and, well, we were about to have a baby any day.

Nope, the ‘pregnancy’ question never came up on the mortgage application process.

We bought this place just last year, at what I thought was the bottom of the market, though the market still dropped even further. The house was a 1937 construction, 800 original, and cute, square feet, with one bathroom. The house actually measures out to 1200 SF, because of the ‘addition,’ which was put on the back of the house by the world’s least competent do-it-yourself idiot carpenter, using materials such as barn boards. There was also an attempt to make a closed-in, heated breezeway to the one-car garage, which had been left in an odd state: The garage door had been replaced by a wall, and it appeared that people intended to make it a living space.

The house (on Gilford St., Laconia) had been flooded due to burst pipes the previous winter. It was a foreclosure jobby, and had last been purchased for over $160,000, at the height of the absurd real estate market in 2006. We assumed that the purchasers had been swallowed up into the gold rush frenzy of flipping houses, and had gotten the easy financing to increase the SF’tage and market value of the house. (Back then, waaay back six years ago, people thought their houses would always increase in value, and you could just use them as an ATM).

Instead of turning the house into a million-dollar flip, they ended up doing half-ass additions and improvements, then getting forced out in mid-winter. Then HUD ended up owning the house, put in a new furnace, patched things up, and put the place on the market.

But I digress. Fast forward from that time and we put in our application for the house in October, T-minus three months from baby launch. At the time, it was the only place on the market left for us, after we applied for one other house that didn’t last more than one minute on the home inspection. Out of all the places in New Hampshire, this was the only one we could afford if we only had one income. And if we went to one income before we could buy, we wouldn’t even qualify for Gilford Ave. It’d be rent city, no on-site laundry, a walkup with a baby, and the struggle of overcoming rent costs to gain a place. I felt like I was living with the red-digit detonation countdown (from any action movie cliff-hanger with a bomb) permanently stuck in my skull. Beeping.

Then we dealt with TD bank mortgage. Despite putting over 20% down, and having sterling credit, we were applying during a time called ‘the mortgage crisis,’ created by the global real estate fiascos. So now, even a homeowner who was doing it right was too small to succeed. Apparently our mortgage was going to be a ‘secondary mortgage market product,’ which meant our mortgage would be floated out in the banking world as a commodity. Because TD Bank, and others, were under a lot of scrutiny for, oh, I dunno, causing a great depression with their subprime mortgage scandal, they were being very careful about taking on new mortgages. The mortgage office was remote. Every communication with the bank took a day. At first, everything was going good. We got the home inspection, and we were assured the place wouldn’t fall in on itself. We faxed them additional documents. A week went by. They ‘misplaced’ some docs. Sent them. Another week.

Wife’s belly getting bigger. Baby kicking hard.

They need some more time. Two weeks. I drive by the house every day, checking it out. The paint is peeling very badly. The yard looks like it was transplanted from the 9th ward of New Orleans after Katrina. But it’s only one mile from work, and it’s a place that we could move straight into.

The bank needs some more time, then, radio silence. I feel like we’re in a submarine, holding earphones to my head, listening for the slightest ping of activity.

It’s November. T-minus eight weeks to baby launch.

Prayer.

It’s hard to pray for something specific, like a certain house, because you have the fear of praying for something that you won’t acquire. We had been praying for a house for some time by then. Pray for grace. Pray for the humility to accept God’s will. Pray for faith in God’s plan for us. Pray out of gratitude for the things we have. Each other. A warm place to live, even if it was an apartment. Pray for patience.

Meanwhile, the mortgage company’s inspector went to the place, and came up with a $5,000 list of demands for home improvements. This has to go to the bank owning the foreclosure.

T-minus seven weeks. Six.

No word on whether the foreclosure bank will pay for the improvements.

Five.

They pay for the improvements.

Four.

It takes a week to get everything contracted and done. It’s now mid-Decemeber. Fortunately, no snow on the ground.

Improvements done. Foreclosure bank inspector lady signs off on improvements.

Fax a million documents. We’re good to go.

Signing date: December 16th, 2011.

We’re told the key is under the brick by the door. Our realtor, who actually was a great guy, gives us a $200 Loew’s card.

We walk into the house. It’s now ours. There’s a huge green shag carpet cover the entire first floor. The ceiling has been destroyed by the repairs conducted to fix burst pipes. The place smells like it’s been flooded. But, hey, the furnace is new. The sub pump is kicking. There is no actual proper front door – the door from the kitchen to the outside breezeway is an interior door. The basement door that vents to the outside is also an interior door. The furnace runs almost constantly to keep the place at 58 degrees.

The first thing we did was rip of the carpet. Well, whaddaya know, there’s actually original oak flooring. That first afternoon, I tear it out of the living room. Then, we go back to our apartment. From then on, for the next two weeks, I go to our new place on Gilford Ave. every night after work. Fortunately, I have just finished my night school finals, so I’m on winter break. I call my wife and tell her I’ll be home at 9:00. We have to take down the seven layers of wallpaper, because the stuff that’s up looks like crap. We have to put up a wall to replace the wall taken down between two rooms on the second floor. We have to redo the bathroom floor, because of water damage. I have to replace the toilet, because it’s cracked due to water freezing in the bowl. The linoleum in the kitchen is actually moldy in places from the flood damage.

I tell my wife I’ll be home at 9:00 the first night. Barely anything gets done. A single trip to Loew’s takes an hour – minimum. Next night, I’ll be home at 10:00. The place is hardly touched. Third night, I’ll be home at 11:00. I get home at midnight.

My buddy Dave comes over, because I was whining to him at work about how long everything was taking. We have to take up the linoleum in the kitchen – two layers of the stuff, plus the lucite. The first thing Dave does is gives me a beer. “Here,” he said. “When you have to rip up your house, this helps you get into the mood. It’s like a Xanax, for men.”

He’s actually right. It’s much easier to tear into the flooring of my house with a cat’s paw and a hammer after a little mental lubrication.

That Saturday, we have some people over to help scrape the infite wallpaper layers. I take up the carpet on the stairs. I remove around 8,000,000 carpet and lucite tacks from the floor. The bathroom is stipped. The kitchen is empty. It’s T-minus three baby weeks. My wife (ok, Courtney) tires out fast, and gets the 1,000-yard stare. Something about being eight months pregnant…

We still take Sunday off for worship. And to recover.

The second week, I’m not sure what happened. A lot of people volunteered. I repaired the bathroom floor. Hasty tile job, but waterproof. New toilet. My friend Tom used his plumbing skills to fix the leak in the kitchen sink water supply, as well as install a new sink and vanity in the bathroom. We got the walls scraped, and I drywalled them smooth. I got the floors free of nails and tacks, then hand sanded and varnished them. Then, we had a second Saturday. This time, the whole family came in. Fifteen people. The first floor ceiling got texture paint. People cleaned up a decade’s worth of dead leaves. My father-in-law reframed a couple interior doors. The kitchen got painted. A bunch of happy things took place. I can’t really remember what I did that day.

I don’t even know what happened the following week, but I know I took time off work. Everything that looks like it will happen in an hour takes three hours. The biggest lies in the retail marketing world is at a home improvement store, where you see happy models painlessly painting their house, or replacing a toilet. I worked like crazy all week, and so did Courtney, who packed out apartment. Still, on Friday night before moving in, I was just putting in the toilet. And the kitchen cabinets and sink. And the vanity wasn’t hooked up correctly. Courtney kind of had a breakdown. She really wanted everything to be perfect, so that we didn’t have to do anything while we were in the house. I was just glad the toilet would flush without flooding the first floor.

And, the oil tank was full.

We moved in in one day. A 16-foot Uhaul truck, along with a couple cars, took everything in one shot. Unfotunately, our deck table didn’t make it. I thought it would survive a 20′ drop from out porch if I dropped it straight down, so that the air would brake its fall, and the impact would be taken across the face of the plastic table. My brothers in law, both college men, felt it would, too. But it blew up into a million pieces that ended up in the enormous construction debris scrape heap growing behind our new house.

We moved in in one shot, bought all our volunteers pizza, and then sometime around two in the afternoon, I lay on my couch and fell asleep. I felt pretty bad about this because Tom was still there, trying to fix a pinhole leak in some pipe. But I was just toast. Church members had made us a bunch of food, and we ate that until the Sears guys came and delivered the appliances I had bought on Black Friday. We got a new washer and dryer in the basement, and a new, glass-top stove. Unfortunately, we were going to find out that glass-top stoves are the most overrated home appliance ever, but more on that some other time.

Two weeks after we moved in, we had a baby.

That actually went a lot smoother than homebuying. But, kind of like a woman forgets how hard it was to have a baby, and agrees to have another one, I would definitely buy a house again.

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