Monday, May 26, 2008

Embrace your inner Alfred

Yesterday morning I was reading the paper when I happened across the obituary of Alfred "Scotty" Young of Philadelphia.

I knew, just by looking at the first line, that I had to stop living a lie.

Here in black and white was a life lived in denial, a man who told his friends and family that his first name was was "Scotty" when in fact he was an Alfred. Imagine the shock his friends had when they woke up and read Sunday morning that man they had know as "Scotty" was really an Alfred. And he was dead.

Here in the end, "Scotty", your secret is out. Fess up.

You. Are. An. Alfred.

I too have been living the secret life as a non-Alfred and now I want the world to know "I AM AN ALFRED!"

That's right. An Alfred. Like my father before me. The "Fred" is strong in my family.....

When I was born a sort of compromise was made about my name, yes my first name would be Alfred and I would be named after my father as was traditional in Italian-American families but my mother was crafty. She insisted I would be called "A. Michael" and so it was.

My Grandmother said "The kid isn't going to know his name".

But my Mother was smart. She knew that eventually people would tire of the "A." portion and just call me me Michael and that is exactly what happened. I was "Mike" and just like "Scotty" I have been living a lie.

There have been times in my life when I have been forced to embrace the name Alfred but it was never my choice.

In the 10th Grade I had to take Spanish and as is the custom in language classes all over America, the first thing that the teacher did was to give everyone their "Spanish" name.

I was to be "Alfredo".
I did not want to be Alfredo.
I told her so.

I want be Miguel.
She said "You are Alfredo because there are too many Miguel's".
I said I am Miguel.
She said I was Alfredo.

This went on for most of the first semester until I eventually just stopped going to class. I actually became so disheartened at the thought of becoming Alfredo that I actually failed Spanish out of spite. Of course in 1974 I had no idea that one day half of America would be speaking Spanish, packaging would have both English and Spanish and it was have done me some good to buck up and say "si" when Ms Jones called out "Alfredo" but "who knew?". I could be enjoying Telelmundo today if only I had swallowed my pride.

Later the same thing would happen in the Navy with different results.

The very first day, after waking us up by throwing trash cans around the barracks at 4 am and generally intimidating us, the Chief in charge of our Company called my name out as "Alfred" at the first muster.

I enthusiastically and wisely said "present!" instead of "Excuse me, but I prefer to be called Michael or Mike or even better A. Michael". That would have gotten me 50 push-ups and a reputation. The people around me had no idea that my name was Mike and so I just went with it. They could have called me Zed or that day and I would have gone with it.

Little did I know that this meant that for the next 6 years I would be "Al". It was just hard to explain after bootcamp that yes, while you have been calling me "Al" for the last 3 months, my name is really Mike. I became Al.

I felt like I was in witness protection.

Later, after the Navy, one of my Navy buddies called me at my parents. I answered the phone and they asked for Al. I said "I'll get him".

I thought they wanted my Dad and I passed him the call. After an awkward couple minutes, my Dad and my Navy buddy figured it out. They wanted me, not Dad.

Since that time it has been my secret what the "A." stands for. People usually guess Anthony, since I am Italian American. It was a secret until our inept IT outsourcer published it by accident in a list. I thought that my secret had been exposed but it quickly blew over.

Oh, certainly "A. Michael" has it's little perks. For example, unless there is some guy or gal named Aardvark, I am usually first in any list sort alphabetically by first name. This means that in any company directory I am usually the first name at the top of the address book. I'm not sure this would happen if I were simply an Alfred. With auto aliasing turned on if you simply type "a" in the to field, the email comes to me. I am a single character - an "a". It's like being known simply as your first name like Brad, Cher or Maddona.

But now I should embrace Alfred, unless I want a similar fate as "Scotty". I'm just not ready yet.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cain and Abel

Last weekend my wife was in the hospital over mothers day. She's better now, thanks.

I had purchased gifts and flowers for both boys, thinking that they had didn't have the means to do so.

As the boys and I were preparing to visit her Sunday morning, oldest son took the other car because he was headed over to his new job directly from the Hospital. He disappeared and showed up late to the Hospital as we were getting the in elevator after we re-coordinated via cell phone.

He now had a gift for his mother, a bouquet of flowers with pictures of her dispersed in the flowers. He must have made the pictures when no one was looking and just bought the flowers that morning.

Youngest son took one look at the gift and said:

"What is that!?" "That's not fair, I can't make that" quite jealous of his older brother.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sub-Prime

This week's This American Life was a surprisingly entertaining look at the Sub Prime Mortgage mess and thanks to their simple approach to telling the story, I think I now understand what has taken place.

We have all heard the what the crisis is about: banks and mortgage lenders gave loans to people who did not have the means to pay them back. That part is pretty straight forward. If lend you $100 and you have no job, chances are you are not going to pay me back.

I have a seventeen year-old, I understand this concept.

The question I have always had is why? as in "why did banks give money to people that had no means of paying them back?". Banks and lenders had always been very good at determining whether you had a good chance of paying them back. When I applied for my first mortgage it was understood that you needed a good job, low debt etc in order to get a mortgage.

What I could never get a grasp on was "what changed?" How did reasonable lenders go from guardians of cash to crazy lottery winner?

The answer is supply. The program explains that the supply of money looking for something to invest in doubled between 2000 and 2006. In 1999 there was a 36 Trillion dollar money supply and between 2000 and 2006 another 36 Trillion was added to that.

This giant pool of money was looking for something to invest in so that more money could be made and the US mortgage market was ripe for picking. Investment bankers like Morgan Stanely, Bear Sterns and the likes invented investment opportunities by lashing mortgages together in giant bundle and selling shares. This then drove demand for more and more mortgages and as demand grew, the traditional mortgages dried up as everyone who needed a mortgage pretty much had one and so the standards were slowly lowered, until eventually you could get a mortgage if you had a pulse.

In late 2006 this whole thing began to fall apart as delinquency rates shot up and people along the chain were left holding bad mortgages that they could no longer sell.

The program explains that all along the mortgage money chain, from the investment bankers at the top to the people who borrowed a half a million dollars while making 37k per year, people knew what they were doing was wrong but they continued to do it out of greed. Whether it was greed for a house they could not afford or a crazy get rich quick pyramid scheme, they knew it wasn't right.

The program is worth an hour of you time.

There is also a good synopsis of the program here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On turning ten - by Billy Collins

On Turning Ten

by Billy Collins



The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Text Message of the week.

From oldest son after receiving his first paycheck from his first real job:

How does this bank thing work because I want to put some of my paycheck in it.

I wasn't sure how to respond. A short history of banking? How about "you put money in there and then later you take it out".

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Speed, you must get out of the race.

I see that Speed Racer is coming out as a major motion picture soon and this got me thinking about the original Speed Racer cartoon that was around when I was a boy.

I'm not sure if I realized it at the time but there was just a lot with the show that didn't make sense.

First of all, who in their right mind would let their 8 year old kid get locked in an automobile trunk with a monkey? But that is exactly what Mom and Pops Racer did with Spritle. Every. Single. Episode.

I can't imaging the how a crazed monkey is going to react being locked in dark trunk, let alone the smell. Look at Chim-Chim, look in his eyes, he's loco.

Next is the crazy Pops Racer. Here's a thought: If you don't want your son to be a Professional Race Car Driver then Don't build him a race car. What did you think the kid was going do? Be a Tailor or a Dentist? This is a subject that hardly comes up with my kids. I never have to say "Don't be Race Car Driver, kids" because I didn't build them a high performance, spy car-featured Race Car!

And who in their right minds builds a race car and then puts the plans for the race car on the said race car, on the fragile windshield, in invisible ink? Pops. Maybe Pops isn't all there. He's a couple laps short of a complete race. And where do you even get invisible ink? Are we supposed to believe that this moron made his own invisible ink? Are you kidding me?

Pops, you ever seen an auto accident? You know what breaks first? That's right big guy, the windshield.

And what about the nuts that are always trying to steal the plans for the Mach-5? Riddle me this: If you steal the car with the windshield, what the heck do you need with the plans? You now have the race car. Take it apart, figure out how it works, paint flames on it. Who cares, it's yours now.

But by far, my favorite character on the show has got be Racer-X. Part pro-wrestler, part racer card driver, he's Speed's missing older brother, Rex.

Shhhh He's in disguise. It's a mask.

Rex left home after a spat with Crazy Pops over.... wait for it.... becoming a professional race car driver. Is that all these people think about? They are in more races than Elvis.

The best part is that Speed never figures it out! He never says "You know I have brother about your age" even though Racer-X has the exact same "M" logo that Speed has on the hood of his car!

"You know I think I've seen that "M" before somewhere"....

Duh.

Speed never even gets a hint who Racer-X is even though Racer-X is always sacrificing himself to save Speed and let him win the Big Alpine, Desert or Great whatever race.

My favorite all time Speed Racer Quote: Racer-X is always warning him "Speed, you must get out of the race". Let's see, there is exactly one racer that helps you when all the others are out to knock you off the track, He has a Giant M on his chest, he's about the right age and size..... Hmmmm.

Who ever could it be?

Speed, you're a moron. Why else would he never take his helmet off?

He's another thing that has bothered me for years. If his name is Speed Racer and his car is the Mach-5, why does he have a "G" on his shirt? What does the "G" stand for? Goofy?

Don't even get me started on the car. Giant Saws? On a race car? Do you have any idea how heavy those things would have to be? Let alone the liability insurance for having giant saws that extend from you car. (Although that does sound handy for resolving parking issues at the Mall around Christmas time).

So even though it was fun to watch, you have to admit, it made little sense.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Stuck in the seventies

I spent these past few weeks stuck in the 1970s in my head.

First, my library stocked up on classic Yes albums and I've checked them all out one at a time and worn them out for the next user. My ears are ringing from iPod usage and my family is tiring of hearing them.

One morning I switch cars with my wife for logistical reasons and it felt like I borrowed my Mom's car to go to High School with Close to the Edge blaring from the Mini-van speakers as I pulled into the Train Station parking lot. I was 17 for moment.

I've rediscovered Relayer and Tales from Topographic Oceans is waiting upstairs.

Then, while I was immersed in the whole Yes thing, Carrier started on PBS.

Carrier is 10 - 1 Hour episodes filmed on the USS Nimitz deployment form May to November 2005. It was shown this week as 5 - 2 hour back to back episodes Sunday through Thursday.

I was mesmerized by the program and could do little else when I got home. I stayed up late watching it every night even though it was on Tivo. I watched parts twice. I was (am?) a Carrier junkie. I feel like I took a six month cruise in the span of a week without the annoying heat, lines and people yelling at you to do something.

Since I spent 2 years of my young adult life on Aircraft Carriers on cruises around the world, this was subject that I was familiar with. In 1978-79 I was on a Mediterranean cruise with the USS Saratoga and in 1980-81 I was in the Western Pacific with the USS Midway.

While much hasn't changed from the 70's on Carriers, much also has.

First of all, now women are on board and serving in just about every job function from the galley to FA-18 Pilot. I'm not sure if this is good or bad. The Navy obviously attempts to keep them separate and treat them like the robots they need but the inevitable has to occur. The show featured a couple that were High School sweat hearts and now (in 2005 at least), through the randomness of military bureaucracy, serve together in the same job function on the Nimitz.

Now a Carrier is more like High School than the floating prison it was when I was in. I'm not sure what that has done to the whole "culture of porn" thing that I saw in most Carrier berthing spaces. I just remember porn everywhere and not just cheesecake-like pictures, these were in depth anatomy lessons and they were everywhere. You can't have that going on with women aboard.


Second, the Shellback initiation is nothing compared to when I was in.

On Carrier, I'm not sure what they did for initiation. It looked like they got hosed down and crawled through green colored water at that was it. Ohh, and it turned into a wet T-shirt contest for the ladies. That really says it all. What was once a proud Naval tradition is now a wet T-shirt contest.

It was different for me. Can you find me in this picture? Hint: I have a large "P" on my white T-shirt.

I went through it on the Midway where nearly 3/4 of the ship were pollywogs (the initiates) and 1/4 were shellbacks (the initiators). I remember it was an all day event on the flight deck and the ship stopped operating for a day while everyone participated in this crazy ritual. Entire departments were brought up to the the circus on flight deck via the aircraft elevators. The night before people were chosen for stupid watches like flushing the toilet every ten minutes to see if the water went down clockwise in stead of counter clockwise thereby proving that we had crossed the equator and checking the flight deck expansion joints for movement.

In 1980 there was definite hazing. I crawled through garbage, I was hosed down with salt water, I kissed the Royal baby. Luckily it was with 3500 of my closest friends and there just wasn't the time for close, personal attention. I heard it was worse on smaller ships where the wog/shellback ratio was much more in the shellback's favor and they could then take all the time they wanted bringing you into the shell back realm. You were also a special Pollywog case if you had a long Naval career and had not gone through the ceremony yet. They went through personal records looking for the 15 year 1st class or chief that hadn't ever crossed the equator and they were in a "special" group.

Now they have something called inappropriate touching. Are you kidding me?

Here I am after kissing the "Royal Baby". They would find the fatest shellback on the ship and he would sit in a chair, rub Crisco on his flabby parts and take you by the ears and rub your face in it. He got me good.

When you were done, the first thing you did was wipe it off and laugh at your buddies that were behind you.

It was funny.

I also remember getting that haircut. I didn't normally wear my hair that close cut and I needed a hair cut right before shellback time. I went down the barber and got my regular haircut for the at-sea price of $0. When I came back to the shop where I worked, there were a group of my friends going down for a special haircut for the initiation. So I joined them and got the brand new haircut completely shaved off.

The Barber was not happy.


Third, where were the lines? I felt I stood in one long line from 1976 to1983. There were lines to eat, lines to get off the ship, lines to get on the ship, lines for haircuts, lines to the ships store and lines to the post office. On Carrier I didn't see one single line.

Fourth, what is with making telephone calls from the ship and email? In 1978 you sent a letter back to the states that same way that Franklin and Adams did from France. It took just as long.

And now, just to complete the whole trip down memory lane thing is a picture of me, on liberty, in the Philippines. I think I look like the director of Lost.

Ok I want that Polar Bear over here and cue the smoke monster.

Where did I get that straw hat?