Archive for September, 2012

Welcome to Reception Battalion

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Last Sunday, we gave Ethan one last hug, told him again that we are very proud of him, and watched him drive away with Sergeant Vernon as the first step on his journey to basic combat training at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina. The circumstances surrounding his leaving for the army were definitely lacking pomp; it was as casual a sendoff as if he were hopping in the car with a buddy to head off for a long weekend.

Ft. Jackson logo

While the goodbye wasn’t anything special, we all knew that what lay ahead of him in the next 10 weeks will be like nothing he as ever experienced before.

Of course, we wondered if we would hear from him. But right there on page eight of the “Guide for Future Soldiers and Their Families” handbook are the FAQs and the first one is: “Will my Soldier be able to call home from Basic Combat Training?” The answer is a qualified “yes;” he would be able to let us know when he arrived.

As a side note, reading on in the handbook FAQs, I was surprised to see that the third question is: “Will the drill sergeants hit my Soldier?” I imagine Ethan going through a lot of situations during BCT, most of them pretty unpleasant, but being hit? That was something, perhaps naively, that I had never considered happening to him.

The handbook assured me that the drill sergeants will not be hitting him. Okay, good, no need to worry about him getting slapped upside the head. However, Steve reminded me that there isn’t any rule about calling them pond scum and fecal matter. It wouldn’t be basic training if they didn’t.

Back to his first week…my cell phone rang on Wednesday and the caller ID showed that it was Ethan. The first words out of his mouth were “There’s some weirdness going on here.” My mind scrambled to think what the “weirdness” might be. Is his paperwork not in order and is there a possibility he might be sent back toCalifornia? Is it “Men in “Black” kind of weirdness? IsFt.Jacksonactually run by aliens? What degree of “weirdness” are we talking about here?

It turned out not to be a big deal. The ominous sound in his voice had to do a lot more with a lack of sleep – he had been awake for 48 hours traveling from California to South Carolina– and the shock he was experiencing from his sudden lack of hair than any real issue. He was worried that the army staff person he needed to talk to about his student loans was hard to track down and that this part of his army contract might not be valid. He was able to call us for about 30 seconds before lights out the next night and tell us he got it worked out.

He still had access to his phone because was in Reception Battalion, a kind of processing stage before BCT actually begins. So as he said, this was the last time they would be nice to them because once BCT starts, he should forget that cell phones and the internet were ever invented.

Steve got a call from Ethan on Friday to let him know that the rumor was they would be waking them up at 2am the next morning to start the real deal. Ethan didn’t quite say these words but his feeling was obvious by the tone of his voice: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

I thought that was the last time he would be able to call and the next communication we would get from him would be a letter – a very short letter if he actually has to use a pen and paper and doesn’t have access to a keyboard.

So I was very surprised when I got a call from Ethan this afternoon. “I’m calling to let you know I have arrived safely at my basic combat training unit. I have to go now. Bye.” I could hear yelling in the background. I couldn’t quite tell but did I hear somebody say “maggot?” Let the adventure begin.

In the Army now

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Our son, Ethan has been a “future soldier” since he signed his enlistment papers on July 31st. However, the future is now. On Sunday afternoon, we dropped him off at the Ocean Recruiting Office in San Francisco and said our goodbyes to him. He’ll have a day at MEPS, the Military Entrance Processing Station in Mountain View and then get on a plane early Tuesday morning to fly to Ft.Jackson in South Carolina to begin basic combat training.

Joining the army is a really big deal because he has chosen to take his life in a completely different direction. As much as he loves movies and had hopes of getting work in something related to his degree in film, he feels now that he is starting on a path that will give his life real purpose. As we talked about his expectations for the army, he said that he thinks that the popular culture that he has immersed himself in up to this point will feel frivolous once he is immersed in army life.

So when I thought about what it would be like to say goodbye to him, I imagined it would have some drama because his departure signifies such a significant milestone in his life.

At the very least, I pictured other young men and women congregating at the recruiting office, pacing nervously while their families had expressions of pride and terror on their faces. An intimidating, stern-faced drill sergeant would bark a few orders at them but save calling them maggots until they were on the bus and out of earshot of their parents.

Or in my most a romanticized version drawn from the movies, Ethan and his fellow soldiers would get on a train and wave to their teary-eyed loved ones out the window as the train pulled out of the station. Of course, this film was in black and white.

In reality, saying goodbye to him when he left for the one night at Angel Island in fourth grader for the Living History Program was more dramatic than this.

For starters, the recruiting office is located on the second floor of a strip mall right above the Jenny Craig storefront and next to a Lucky and Petco so the setting doesn’t exactly lend itself to driving-off-into-the-sunset sort of departures. We had arrived more than an hour early for Ethan’s 2:00 departure time, so we had lunch at a Hawaiian fast-food restaurant, took some photos, and then headed upstairs to see if Ethan could start the check-in process early. He was the only recruit there.

The doors to the recruiting office were still locked but in a few minutes, Ethan saw Sergeant Vernon pull into the parking lot. Instead of a Louis Gossett, Jr. type of drill sergeant in like in an “Officer and a Gentleman,” Sergeant Vernon was a 5’5” Asian man wearing a Red Sox shirt and jeans…but probably as tough as they get. His bio on the recruiting office wall said he had done two tours inIraqand had numerous awards in marksmanship among many other commendations. It’s just that he didn’t fit the movie that was playing in my head.

The recruiting office was basically a big room with six desks placed around the perimeter and three big banners with the words “Are You Army Strong?” decorating the walls. Sergeant Vernon plugged in his laptop, entered some information, printed out Ethan’s “Ship Packet,” handed it to him and told him not to lose track of it. Ethan answered with “Yes, Sergeant” and stood at parade rest while he waited for the papers to print. I know he’ll do fine; he’s so eager to please. Then we all headed back out to the parking lot.

There we each hugged Ethan once more, he unceremoniously threw his duffle into the trunk and he and Sergeant Vernon drove off.

Given the importance of this day in his life, it was all somewhat anti-climactic. But that’s okay. I can do without a dramatic send-off, what’s really important is the dramatic change that I expect will happen in him over the next 10 weeks.

Sushi and celebration in the City

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Our son, Ethan, is a week away from the end of the world as he knows it and he feels fine. That’s because next Monday he ships out for boot camp in South Carolina and the beginning of a five year commitment in the army. His current world of friends, family, iPhone, and internet is ending, at least temporarily for the 10 weeks that he is in basic training. He is excited, a little nervous but totally at peace with his decision to enlist. He feels like he has found his calling.

In honor of him being a short-timer civilian and to celebrate my birthday, we drove into the city to take him to dinner. Ethan picked the restaurant; a $22.95 all you-can-eat Asian buffet in Daly City called Kome that he and his girlfriend discovered while he was going to San Francisco State.

If you approach Kome more like Disneyland than a restaurant, you can have a really good time; it’s crowded, has long lines and the food isn’t very good but that’s okay, because it’s about the total experience, not fine dining.

Mass quantities of sushi at Kome

Kome is a total clash of cultures; the place was jammed with big groups of Latino, Japanese, and Chinese families, students, seniors, and a just-married couple with the bride still in her wedding dress and the groom in a tux. I especially liked the lady with the German accent who was next to me in the buffet line. She watched the Chinese chef whack up the boiled chicken with a cleaver and then asked if she could have the chicken head – beak and eyes included – and neck. In whatever culture she came from, it’s a delicacy.

The restaurant is enormous – it can probably seat 500 people. It looks like a bowling alley that was decorated in the 1970s. Lots of glass, chrome, reflective silver chandeliers and black vinyl with a big red neon “Sushi” sign glowing in the back of the room. A roller disco circling the room would not have seemed out of place.

Ethan was especially happy because we were seated next to the sushi station which is the reason he loves Kome; he can eat his fill for about the third of what it would cost at a real Japanese restaurant. Is it really sushi? If they can call the gluey white paste surrounding imitation crab “sushi” on the platters at Costco, then this certainly qualifies. Do you like wasabi? There was a punch bowl filled with it.

I especially liked watching the rice machine at work. Similar to a pasta machine, it takes cooked rice and forms it into flat square sheets so all the sushi chef has to do is slap on the seaweed, fill it, and roll it. I’m sure sushi masters who spend a lifetime perfecting their art, die a small death every time one of the Kome chefs cranks out another 30 pieces of California roll in about 10 minutes.

Shrimp and sea snails

Jennifer expanded her culinary horizons with squid balls and warm almond and red bean dessert soup. I think the tiramisu was more like tofumisu but I’m not complaining. When you leave a place like that feeling that you got more than your money’s worth in entertainment value and it didn’t even cost you a case of food poisoning, the evening is a success.

Cookies versus calculus

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

One of the activities that I used to enjoy when I was teenager and it was Sunday afternoon and I wanted to procrastinate doing my homework was to go into the kitchen, take an inventory of the ingredients we had on hand, find a recipe, and then bake something yummy. Sugar, flour, butter and chocolate chips were dependably to be found in the pantry, so even if my mom didn’t have cream, cocoa powder or cream cheese in the fridge for a more adventurous dessert, I knew I could always satisfy my craving to bake something by making chocolate chip cookies from the Toll House Cookie recipe on the back of the bag.

Perhaps there is some yet to be discovered gene for this, but our daughter, Jennifer Lynn has inherited the same impulse to whip up a cake or cookies when her calculus assignment is too daunting. On Saturday, she was lamenting that her especially rigorous class schedule this year is really cutting into her baking time.

During the summer when the constant black cloud of never-ending homework wasn’t hanging over her, the assortment of treats that she produced was wonderful. We went blackberry picking near our house which resulted in Blackberry Swirl Pound Cake, Blackberry Crumb Bars and blackberry syrup. Then there were the peaches that were starting to get mushy on our counter. From that, she made Peach Upside-Down Cake.

Now that we are into the fall, she asked me to add applesauce, raisins, and walnuts to my shopping list so that in between answering her history questions and summarizing a chapter of the Scarlet Letter, she can bake Applesauce Spice Bars.

I think sometimes I don’t appreciate the stress that she feels at school. She transferred to a new high school this year so in addition to having to up her game academically, she also has to find her place among a new group of peers. I thought baking was a stress reliever for her so I was surprised when she said that she actually finds baking to be sort of stressful – especially if she’s making something tricky like macarrons.  “Are the egg whites still too cold or did I accidentally use wax paper on the cookie sheet instead of parchment paper?”

So why does she like making treats even though there is anxiety involved? I think it’s because this low-level stress is more a welcome distraction than it is a gut-wrenching problem. I also think she enjoys baking because there aren’t any long-term negative consequences if the result of her time in the kitchen is less than perfect. When the macarrons don’t rise into perfect little spheres, her dad and I will still enjoy every last crumb of them. Unlike a “C” in physics, “flat macaroons” won’t show up on her permanent record and affect her chances of getting into her college of choice.

I’m really hope that her homework load lightens a little this week; I’m looking forward to those applesauce bars.

Good Times

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

No one wants to see it come to an end. At least that’s the feeling I got at Sunday’s celebration of the Petaluma’s third place finish in the Little League World Series. Graduations,  weddings, and a ticker-tape parade – those kind of events, regardless of what else is happening in the world or in your life, are an opportunity to share pure joy with a community of people who feel exactly the same way. That feeling doesn’t happen very often and when it does, it should be savored.

The Petaluma Downtown Association which worked closely with the Little League officials on organizing the event is to be congratulated. It could have turned into a commercial free-for-all because lots of people wanted to share in the reflected glory of the team. But to their credit, it was all about the kids. Only the team and the Petaluma Junior High and high school bands were in the parade. There weren’t any floats promoting businesses or organizations, just the somewhat stunned faces of the adorable kids and their bursting-at-the-seams proud parents and siblings waving at the enthusiastic crowd. It was short but sweet.

At Walnut Park where the introductions, speeches and awards were given, the same non-commercial, non-exploitive atmosphere continued. The hot dogs and ice cream were free, thanks to the Rotary and Clover-Stornetta and water was a very reasonable $1 with the proceeds going to the Ugandan team. It would have been such a shame if the park had been filled with vendors hawking merchandise in order to make a buck off the achievements of the Little League-rs. Instead, it stayed pure to what it was all about: honoring an amazing group of talented kids, wise and devoted coaches and sacrificing parents.

To Petaluma and the team; you made us all proud from beginning to end.