Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Real Scare of Halloween

Today is October the thirty-first. On this day in 1517 AD, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the doors of Wittenberg Castle Church and challenged the status quo. It is also Halloween, the day on which every year we celebrate the status quo.
I have to admit that I’m not a great proponent of this annual nod to Satan and the titillations of toying with our fears and dipping our toes in the Styx, as if we wanted to try death on for size to assure ourselves that it’s not that bad.
People will tell me that it is all in fun. And there was a time in my youth when I happily joined in with the crowd and submitted myself to the many thrill rides of fear. I reveled with the rest of them in the rush of dread. But I’ve learned that there is enough real hell in this life to overcome without my need to fabricate it for my amusement.
And certainly death is nothing to celebrate. Death is the great curse upon all creation. All the universe groans in agony while it waits longingly for the relief that will finally come on the day when death will be put to death. It took a titanic act of love on the Creator’s part to make that happen, for Jesus died for us and was raised again in power so that in Him we might have eternal life. Why would we want to look back on that death, like Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom, which cost so much for us to be finally freed? Jesus wept at the sight of the anguish and hopelessness that death has brought on the human race and all of creation. We should weep too.
Having said all that, I, like all the rest of the families on our block, filled a bowl with candy and dutifully doled out the morsels to all the little ghouls, goblins, monsters, supermen, princesses, witches, fairies, ballerinas, cowboys, ghosts, skeletons, astronauts, dirt-bike racers, lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my, aren’t I the little hypocrite. Yes I am. And this will be my last year of caving under the pressures of the mainstream.
But the impetus for this blog was not self-confession; although I do feel quite liberated by this confession. The main reason is to share with you my observations of this year’s crop of trick-or-treaters, to support my opening thesis.
We had teenagers come to our door armed with pillow cases wearing costumes that looked strangely like those I see them wearing everyday at the junior high school. We had kids who took the candy from my hand. Some said thank you. Some, after I plunked a 3-Muskateer Bar in their bucket, whined, “Man, I wanted a Starburst.” One kid said, “Gimme something.” Very few of them actually said, “Trick or treat.” Some were eating the candy on their way down my lawn, leaving a trail of empty wrappers. There were also a few little cuties who welled my eyes with tears: the little two year old giraffe who made the long hike to my door with her dad and looked bewilderingly at me as I dropped a chocolate bar in her sack; and the three year old superman with forties style slicked back hair who said trick or treat and thank you; I told his mom and dad that I felt a lot safer knowing that superman is around. Some, I’m reasonably certain, came back for seconds. And some drove into our neighborhood in vans from who-knows-where, armed with empty buckets and sacks. I kept waiting for the tour bus to show up.
I don’t know about you, but after witnessing this pageant of Halloweeners, I understood the meaning of status quo like I’ve never understood it before; what I experienced today is the true American culture in miniature. Lord have mercy.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Wheels: Part 4

Alas, poor readers, I have been negligent in my writing. Forgive me, but know that more delays will likely occur in the future as I make my way through summer. Here is the final installment of Wheels........

Like all of us, I can recall a few stand-out tales from my early driving experiences, like travelling west on a family vacation. My dad let me have the wheel of our Old’s Cutless Supreme, which would do 40 mph just by taking your foot off of the brake, while travelling in the sticks of Utah. I only had my learner’s permit at the time; and when I got stuck behind a long caravan of wide-load motor homes, I put the blue rocket in passing gear, punched it to 110, and overtook them. During this little maneuver my dad leaned over, glanced at the speedo, and settled back without comment. I figured he was either feeling a sense of pride--thinking to himself, “that’s my boy--”or he was trying to avoid making me nervous. My mother was less cautious saying from the back seat, “Don’t EVEN think I don’t know how fast you’re going.” Or was it, “Don’t even THINK I--” My memory is a little vague on that point.
Growing up in Colorado, where you’re either travelling up or down, the thought of using a manual transmission (I was going to call it a standard transmission, but manual transmissions are no longer standard issue) was, well, terrifying. My father decided I would learn in a white Ford pick-up, circa 1963, that had been used to haul water for the highway department during the first twenty-five years of its tortured life. It had three on the tree without synchronizers, and a clutch the disengaged about the point at which your knee met your chin. So my dad thought it would be the perfect classroom for learning to use the clutch. I think that the term, crucible, works for me better than classroom. Every time we would take her out, I’d pray to make all the lights. But invariably I’d end up in the middle of a string of cars on the mean part of a hill, waiting for the lights to change. I knew I had about three inches and maybe ten seconds grace period to find the engagement point and get up the hill without stalling. Well, after four or five stalls and bevies of honking horns, my dad would quietly go around the truck, ask me to slide over, and get us going again. I’d mutter to myself, “One of us is going down, truck, and it ain’t going to be me!” It must have heeded my threat for soon I was happily double-clutching my way around town.
I loved that truck for what it wasn’t. The tappets, and probably every other part of the engine, were loose. So the engine sounded like a menacing Hemi when idling. One sunny afternoon, my friend and I were sitting at a red light when a tricked-out Camero, complete with a chromium supercharger pushing through its hood, rumbled alongside us. I looked over at the other driver and revved my engine. The Camero, as if impressed, answered back; only its reverberations nearly set us on our side. Unruffled, I dipped deeper into the throttle so as to say, “Who’s your daddy?” At which point the light turned green. The Camero had already sped three blocks down the street by the time my white water truck, whining, sputtering, rattling, and coughing its way through the cloud of dust and exhaust fumes left in the wake of the hot rod, reached the other side of the intersection.
I finally achieved the point in my life where I had the means—at least numerically—to purchase a sports car; so I bought myself a 2002 Honda S2000. The latter was a beautiful piece of machinery. My S2K came in silver with a black interior. The car fit like a glove; one entered it like a fighter pilot does an F-16. I know this because it was winter when I bought the car, and I spent a lot of time getting in and out of it while it sat in my garage. The S2K was nearly perfectly balanced, and had a 2L engine putting out 240 ponies (a record for its day). Its Achilles’ heel was its low-end torque which was just that, low. So the S2K was by no means a drag racer. But it was fast once you took it above 5000 rpm, which it was quite content to do right up to its red-line near 9000 rpm. It was night when I first drove the car out of the show room. The salesman had finished reviewing all the features when I started her up by pressing the red button for that purpose. I turned on the lights and the salesman said, “Whoa.” Neither of us had seen the new halogen lamps Honda had fitted the S2000, but when we did, we realized the car had a soul.
I frequently took my sports car out into the country back roads, where I could run it through its paces; I was a bad boy. My favorite story to showcase the outstanding handling of my S2K recounts the time I took my wife to a rehearsal at church. There is a long sweeping on-ramp to the interstate near our house. I would try to run this as fast as possible by finding the most efficient racing line. With my wife in the passenger seat, I ran the ramp. The optimum line required that I bring the car tight to a wall on the right side—a point I usually reached at a speed of around 95 mph. Then I would shoot across to an opposite curve and over a rise to the last long straight stretch to the highway; at the time of this story I crested the curve at about 110 mph. By the time I entered the highway I reduced my speed to the legal limit, and we cruised sleepy down the interstate until we came to the exit ramp. This particular ramp is a tight circle with a recommended speed limit of 25 mph; I took my wife around the loop at 60 mph. The car stuck like glue even though our stomachs didn’t. Finally, I wound us around to the back lot of the church at 45 mph, and set us neatly into a parking spot, decelerating to zero nearly instantaneously. My wife’s palms were sweating as I, with a broad grin on my face, went around the car to open the door for her. In short, my S2K was a gas.
But not everyone liked the S2000. Even though it frequently bested all the sports cars of its class in track competitions, many preferred the raw power of the vet, or the over-steering of the 350Z. I must admit that I quickly tired of having to apologize for my car’s lack of low-end oomph; especially after weeks of my father-in-law boasting of how his ’65 Mustang convertible handily beat my newfangled foreign sports car off the line. I would eventually sell my S2000 to buy my wife a new Acura TL. The reason was mostly to see my wife’s smiling face as she drives her very own sports sedan; although, it doesn’t take a car to make her smile. But certainly part of the impetus in abandoning my S2K was its lackluster torque. And my realization of this caused me to consider a deeper meaning behind all of these matters automotive.
My experiences with that ol’ truck and my S2000 have taught me something about relationships. Human beings tend to approach each other with a list of expectations. The latter have come largely from outside us; we gather and develop our expectations from the various voices of the media or our friends and family. Our expectations also develop from within us as the outside influences color and shape our fears, desires, insecurities, and alike. All our expectations ultimately converge within us as a formula; and this formula is nearly always self-serving to the exclusion of others. At the outset of a relationship, we tend to assess the other person by plugging them into our formula, and we wait to see if we obtain a favorable outcome. Some fail the test immediately; the number and frequency of such cases is proportional to how exacting our formula is. Others pass the test, some with flying colors; it’s like the computer in our mind, after being programmed with the formula, spits out a response, “Oh, this is the one,” or “strike while the iron is hot,” or “you’re in love, you’re in love, you’re in love.” The trouble is that the data given to this computer are usually cursory at best, and really nothing more than first impressions; like with my ol’ truck or sports car, the factors we judge others with according to our formula are all the sounds, style, looks, and carefully crafted endorsements. It isn’t until we have driven them around the block a few times that we discover how well the performance actually agrees with the image and promises. When we do finally quantify the gap between the two—and the gap is usually large—we become disillusioned and frustrated; and our first reaction is to back out and look elsewhere. This happens because we have based our happiness and contentment on fulfilling our expectations, which, as I said earlier, are ultimately self-serving. So we will never be happy because our expectations will never be satisfied because they are founded on an inherently flawed principle.
The joy I experienced with my white Ford pickup or my Honda S2000 grew out of an appreciation of their intrinsic character, not what I hoped to get out of them. The truck was old, worn, and tired, sure; but the challenges that resulted from this reality engendered a sense of accomplishment that would have been missed had everything been slick and easy. As I met those challenges, I grew increasingly fond of that truck, and looked forward to the next encounter. Its personality, crude yet genuine, got under my skin. I quickly forgot about what it wasn’t as I celebrated what it is. Once I discovered the true nature of my S2000, a whole new world of opportunities, experiences, knowledge, and skill opened up for me that I would have lost had I abandoned it right away for the glamour of something else.
Trucks and cars are machines, of course, and can only be improved to a limited extent by our investment in them--not so with people. We forget that the other person in our burgeoning relationship is also tormented by fears and insecurities, and so carry their own raft of expectations. When we abandon them for failing our formula, we not only forfeit the joy and wisdom that comes from celebrating their real self, we rob them of an opportunity for the same discovery of themselves. When this happens, the expectations in the minds of both parties become increasingly unattainable because they become increasingly self-serving. We will never find what will make us happy, which is never what we believe will make us happy, until we help the other person discover their inherent beauty, value, and strengths.
My life on wheels has been froth with metaphoric overtones. One of the great gifts of walking with Christ is the ability to find wisdom in everything, even the most unlikely places. For this reason we do ourselves a disfavor when we confine our lives to tiny little boxes. Jesus taught us that He is Truth and the Truth will set us free.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Wheels: Part 3

Nearly every summer Dad searched out a go-kart track to test our metal in mortal combat…well, okay, we wanted to determine that year’s champion. One season this competition came on a rainy day at a track in a mountain town during a family vacation. We slipped and slided our way around the track with mud flying and the sounds of Briggs and Strattons, pressed to their limits, echoing off the Rocky Mountains and fiendish laughter of delight whenever anyone gained the advantage. I don’t recall who won that year. It didn’t matter. We returned to the motel room, wet and covered in mud, feeling like Fangio and Hill. My mom missed the magic, though; and informed us that being a pit crew to a couple of wannabe racers was not her idea of a fun vacation.
My childhood wheelophilia wasn’t all action; there was a literary side to my love of wheels. Even today I follow at least four different sports car magazines—especially in the winter months when my baby is garaged. In my youth I collected all the odd-rod cards except number five, which apparently never existed. The non-existent card served as a shill to keep you coming back for more. I’ve never been a collector beyond my matchbox cars, but my brother helped me out when he came home on leave by purchasing an entire unopened carton of the packets of the bubblegum cards. In case all of this was before your time, odd-rod cards had cartoon pictures of wildly souped-up hot rods driven by benign but ghoulish characters. These cards have since been displaced by Pokeman cards. I also dutifully read every edition of Hot Rod magazine published throughout my formative years. Big Daddy Don Garlits was my hero and Don, the snake, Prudhomme was our nemesis. I knew all about drag racing; although, I never actually went to any competitions. I think I watched the Gater Nationals on ABC’s Wide World of Sports once, though.
Of course, bicycles generally loom large in a person’s transportation portfolio. I used to like to do wheelies on my sting-ray bicycle, which I bought myself with money I made mowing the neighbor’s yard for a summer. My friends and I would conduct contests to see who could hold the wheelie the longest. The reader knows the shtick. We also competed by jumping off crudely made ramps. My lower back periodically reminds me of those early escapades. And like all kids, I attached playing cards in the spokes—a prepubescent example of tuning. I accentuated the chrome and removed the chain guards from all my bikes. Riding bikes was all about speed and daring-do—-vicarious race cars. I rode my sting-ray across Colorado Springs once—riding some the way on the interstate (don’t do this at home)—in order to see a real funny car in a local car show. In high school my friend and I rode from Colorado Springs to Denver in the sleeting rain. At one point I got my Schwinn Suburban five speed going fifty five down a hill—at least that is what the driver of a car that pulled alongside me frantically indicated--all without a helmet. Ah, the immortality of youth.
A brief comment about my Schwinn is in order. I couldn’t afford the cool Schwinn Paramount bicycle or any of those all-Campanello equipped Italian jobs—the Ferraris of the pubescent jet-set--bikes that, today, eight year olds take for granted; so I bought a Suburban. I stripped it down best I could, but it still weighed about the same as a M1 Abram tank. Come to think of it, they used to use bikes like my ol’ Suburban to derail trains during the Korean War and then ride off on them as the angry enemy swarmed from the resultant wreckage. Yes, bicycles were my passion until I earned my driver’s license and then my bike era ended.


Monday, May 31, 2010

Wheels: Part 2

Before those fracases between this boy and his motorized machines, skateboards came on the scene. I don’t know exactly who first thought of the idea; perhaps it began in California. All I know is the big kids on the block started toting pieces of two-by-sixes with roller skates screwed or nailed into them. Us younger kids in my neighborhood found a long two-by-four and affixed a couple of pairs of roller skates to it and the entire block of kids (I don’t remember the actual count) climbed aboard and headed down the street. My friend and I were the last to fall off. Being a child of limited athletic prowess, I saw skateboarding as a new potential competitive advantage. My father may have recognized this too; whatever his motivation, my dad graciously bought me a red steel-wheeled skateboard at the local department store. I’ll never forget the piles and piles of the cloned board on sale there—a clear example of American capitalism at its best. Once in hand, I wasn’t about to test my new board on just any sidewalk; so I asked (whined, bugged, and nagged) my brother to drive me to the infamous Coonsmiller hill—a formidable downhill run in front of the local high school of the same name. My brother had earlier ridden successfully down this same incline on his top-flight rubber-wheeled board carrying a girl on his shoulders; he even got his picture in the newspaper (my brother did all the cool stuff—although our mother didn’t think so). Naturally I viewed Coonsmiller hill as the only acceptable venue for my new skateboard’s maiden voyage. Standing on the top of the precipice kind of took one’s breath away. It wasn’t so much the initial plunge that unnerved me—although it was terrifying--but the right-hand turn at the end that I needed to negotiate into a large driveway where delivery trucks entered to bring supplies to the school. My brother did it with a girl on his shoulders, so a scrawny kid on a brand new piece of equipment should be able to do it—no problem. I would never know because about half way down I hit an eruption in the sidewalk. I vaguely recall seeing, out of the corner of my eye, splinters of red painted wood, ball bearings and screws flying out from beneath my board as I leapt for the safety of the lawn. “Dad’s going to kill you,” my brother intoned as he inspected the damages. But as you can see, my dad didn’t kill me; in fact, he bought me my own top-flight rubber-wheeled skateboard for Christmas that year. I would use that board in many adventures until I grew out of the pastime. It was a fine piece of engineering. However, unlike today’s boards, my old rubber-wheeler couldn’t tolerate even tiny grains of sand on the sidewalk. Even the slightest amount of sand would stop the skateboard dead—the skateboard, that is, the rider kept right on going. But despite its short-comings, my skateboard was fast and relatively agile. All my years of honing my skateboarding skills would eventually come to fruition when I successfully surfed the waves off of Waikiki beach during a college vacation in Hawaii. But that’s another story.
My experiences with skateboarding provide a great metaphor for the price of excellence. It is all too easy for us to skimp on cost for critical tools in our lives, or take short-cuts in our education, or, most importantly, treat our relationship with God as only a Sunday morning fix. We will discover that the price of replacements and repairs of cheap tools far exceeds the initial cost of high-quality products. Trying to learn something by taking short-cuts, avoiding tiresome exercises, or attending schools having poor reputations will leave us uncompetitive and frustrated in our work world and struggling to keep pace with our peers. Treating God as someone we encounter only on Sunday mornings will leave us spiritually dead. Jesus put it this way:

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!”

Monday, May 24, 2010


[This new story is a slight departure from my usual fair in that it is true. And I would like to dedicate it to my father, Arthur R. Kokko. As always, the reader will have to come back to the blog every Monday to get the entire story. Racers, start your engines!]

Everything’s a metaphor. I wasn’t the first to say this. Some wise person, I don’t recall who, once said it. It’s true. We can discover truths about our world, what we are, who we are, and why, by simply uncovering the many allusions that exist with people, places and things. We often overlook this vast resource of wisdom because most of us are too busy striving to be the other guy’s metaphor. I rekindled my own interest in metaphors when I purchased one. I bought a sports car.
The fact that I was middle aged at the time was purely coincidental. You think not? I’ll have you know that I am the poster child of safety. I avoid risky behavior at all costs. I even hate roller-coasters. So how does a sports car with all its pent up mayhem draw a person like me, who is quite at home in the hub, to venture out onto the wheel. I don’t know…. Okay, it was a mid-life crisis. In all fairness, though, I have always loved fast wheels—especially if I’m in control.
My first car was a dull gray peddle-car. I don’t know the specific model of car it was supposed to be, but I didn’t care because it was my first ride. I’ve been told that I had spent hours with a hose and sponge trying to make her shine, but to no avail. There’s definitely a metaphor in there somewhere. I’ll leave it to the reader, though, to ponder what that metaphor might be.
A little later in my childhood, I went through a phase of collecting and coddling Matchbox cars. These were the originals made precisely to scale by Lesney Products in England. I sold my pristine collection for about an order-of-magnitude gain over the initial investment. Not bad, but I should have saved the boxes. I would have profited even more had I saved my meager Hot Wheels collection. But Hot Wheels were my expendable cars that I would paint and crash without mercy; hence I bequeathed to myself only a painful memory not unlike what someone today must experience as they recall the time they traded in their low mileage ’67 Mustang for a new Pinto.
In my Tween years I graduated to gas powered model cars; the first one being a replica of the famous Ford GT. The car was so fast that the only way you could use it was by tethering it and watching it morph into a blue ribbon until the gas ran out. Not much fun, but very visceral. The second was a dune buggy that came with changeable gears. I spent most of our short tenure together cleaning its fickle engine and polishing its blue metal fleck finish, while trying to figure out some way of making it go faster than 0.00001 mph. I later sold it in a rummage sale. I didn’t tell those naive new owners that they could start the buggy going, have lunch, and return an hour later to find it had advanced only about two feet. Perhaps they wouldn’t have cared; not everyone buys vehicles for speed and performance. And doggone-it, the toy looked really cool. I never heard from them, so I guess they were happy.
One could probably glean many profound metaphors from my early exploits with cars. Collectively, I see them as a metaphor for transcendent value. What I mean is this. We have come to believe value is a subjective expedient of the moment. It isn’t. Value is both objective and transcendent. Value is found with a rarified heart, like that of a child. Value is lost to us and distorted by our expectations and jaded cynicism. But value remains true and constant, even though our perception and appreciation of it changes.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

That Perfect Gift: Part 2

[If this is your first visit to my blog, you need to go back to my Jan 31 posting to start the story that is being continued in the present posting. Have fun!....]

The little bit of light in the store came from a ceiling fixture over a counter opposite the front door. Behind the counter sat an old man—you know, about your age—with a round bald head and undersized circular bifocals, and his fat face plunged in a small greasy bowl of rice. He shoveled the grain into his mouth as if he hadn’t eaten in a week; maybe he hadn’t; his little business didn’t look like much of a money maker. The man finally looked up from his meal after I slammed the door to get it to close. Oh, Daddy, what an interesting character—like right out of an oriental version of Dickens. To help you understand just what I mean, as well as explain the bizarre object you now have before you, I will try to relate our encounter verbatim to you.
Initially he seemed disinterested, but soon a large broad grin, complete with some missing teeth, filled his shiny face. Nearly dropping his bowl on the counter, he said, “American, American, hello American! Rich American, come in please. Have many nice things; rich American find many nice things, here—all cheap!”
I told this jocund portly fellow of my dilemma and he slapped his hands together and said, “Yes, yes, yes, understand rich American. Truly, it has been spoken, ‘rich father have very poor daughter.’ Follow me, please--just right thing for rich American. Come, Mister Chen show rich American very great thing—very rare. You see, Mister Chen never wrong; you see, make rich American very happy. This way, please.”
I followed Mr. Chen through a beaded doorway into a disheveled workshop and on to another door and down a long curved stone stairway. A small lantern he had plucked off a cluttered workbench lighted the way.
“Careful, please: very dark until we get to basement,” he said as we descended down the cool, dank and decaying passage. I, of course, felt somewhat disconcerted following this strange man into the catacombs, but, hey, that’s what adventures are all about, right?
When we got to the cellar, Mr. Chen pulled a string attached to a single light bulb in the center of the room. Nothing happened, so he tapped the bulb lightly with his finger until the light reluctantly came on.
“Very tricky, very tricky,” he said. “Must treat like small baby—electrical not so good in Ulaanbaatar.”
“Indeed,” I thought to myself.
“Hold lantern, please,” he said handing me the lamp. Then he left the light and started searching for something by throwing stuff around willy-nilly. I heard the tinkling of glass when some of the boxes hit the stone floor. I wondered how he could afford to be so careless; I reasoned that it might be his way of antiquing. Finally, after things settled into a new state of disorganization, and, I’m afraid, disrepair, he reappeared in the light carrying a medium sized lacquered black box. Gingerly he placed the box on a wooden table and asked me to set the lantern next to it. He wiped away the dust with a handkerchief. The shiny ebony box gleamed in the dim light. Lovingly he twisted the brass latch and opened the box to reveal a lumpy purple velvet bag cinched by a small gold cord. His breathing increased with excitement as he untied the sack and despoiled it of its contents. With a deep sigh of satisfaction, Mr. Chen held up the object for me to see.
It appeared to be a stuffed animal of some kind. The creature had long reddish brown hair, large clumps of which were braided with red, green, and clear jewels hung on the ends. I thought, “What an interesting way to display jewelry.”
“Huh,” I said after examining it for a few moments, “a toy animal.”
“Not toy, no, no, not toy, real animal, not toy!” he said.
“That’s a real animal?” I said.
“Real animal, yes, and very rare,” he replied. “Only in Hangayn Mountains find pigmy musk ox.”
“Pygmy musk ox?” I said taking a closer look.
Sure enough, it had tiny dull dark gray horns, shiny coal black eyes like marbles surrounded by long lashes, a black nose and four little hooves—all in perfect miniature. Honestly, Daddy, I hadn’t seen anything like it since the specimens of Royal antelope at the Field Museum in Chicago.
“Did you shrink it or what?” I asked.
“No shrink, no shrink, as big as gets,” he said. “Hangayn ox very small—even as adult—also very shy; that’s why so rare. You buy ox? Rich American pleased with gift for honorable father?”
“Well,” I cleared my throat, “it is really nice and, well, nice, but you see my father is a kind of a straight arrow type. I’m not sure he would really appreciate such an…ah…unique--”
“Yes, I know. My father, too, what you say…rod in wet ground,” he said.
I told him I didn’t understand.
“Rod in ground, rod in ground,” Mr. Chen repeated as he motioned sticking something into the floor.
“Oh, you mean a stick in the mud!” I said.
“Yes, stick in mud,” he said.
“Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” I stammered. “I just meant he’s sort of conservative, you know? A two feet on the ground type…ah….”
Mr. Chen didn’t seem to understand me, or, at least, believe me. So what could I do? Really, Daddy, I couldn’t have some perfect stranger half way around the world thinking my father is some kind of an old fuddy-duddy, now could I? So, well, Happy Birthday, Daddy!! Now you know the story behind what you are undoubtedly looking at with great bewilderment, and can now appreciate, and I use the word loosely, its novelty. I hope you and mom like it. Be sure to comb the little darling once a month.
I love you both. See you guys in about seven weeks. You can bet I’ll keep my eyes pealed for a glimpse of the rare Hangayn pigmy musk ox when I return to the digs. And don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine—really. Love, Missy.


That Perfect Gift Copyright © 2010 by Bruce Jerome Kokko

[Next Week (on Feb.15) meet a quintessential narcissist in the dark story The Second Death.]

Sunday, January 31, 2010

That Perfect Gift

[For those of you reading my blog for the first time, you need to know that I am presenting my thoughts and ideas in the form of short stories. But each story will be presented in serial form. Last week I completed my first 4 part story. To read it please go to the Jan. 5 2010 posting and read through the postings to the present. I am beginning a new story with the present posting that I would like to dedicate to my daughter, Larisa. Enjoy!.........]

Dear Daddy, Surprise! That’s mean; I’m sorry, but I did say it would be about six weeks before you would hear from me again. I hope you haven’t been worrying too much. The team and I certainly have experienced some adventures and, yes, misadventures. We have had no lack of visitors since we found the gravesite. So far it’s mostly been government officials making sure that we haven’t touched the Great Khan’s remains or pilfered any of the treasures entombed with him. And there are some exquisite pieces. Apparently word travels fast because a few weeks ago some bandits arrived to try their hand at archeology. Fortunately they weren’t too bright because they showed up a short time after some soldiers. I think the thieves have now decided to pursue some other scholarly endeavor—least wise, they’ll have plenty of time for study. Anyway, the regiment has been garrisoned at our camp, so we are all breathing a lot easier.
As I said, we have cataloged some beautiful and priceless artifacts. Sadly, we haven’t found the log-book we think Genghis or one of his lieutenants kept of their exploits. But what we have unearthed will write volumes of history. The government plans to create a state exhibit that will travel all around the nation free of charge to the citizens. Then it will tour the globe. The proceeds will be used for various programs back here in Mongolia. I am very happy for these wonderful people that they should be given such a super gift. They deserve to profit from the rich piece of their heritage and it looks like they shall. As you might guess, I have many more stories to tell you; too many for me to write about now, though, so I’ll wait to give you the lowdown in person. I’ve recorded it all in my journal so I won’t forget anything.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar, yesterday. It felt good to enjoy the amenities of a hotel, such as they are, for a change. But, it’s only for a week (sigh) and then it’s back to the Hangayn Mountains for another six weeks and then I’ll be coming home (yea!).
I remembered this morning that I won’t be home for your birthday. And because you can’t have me there to help celebrate, I just knew that I would have to find an extra special gift to help you feel better. The trouble is, as always, what do you get a father who has everything? I mean, CD’s, books, and fountain pens seem so boring and unoriginal. Well, what better place to find a truly unique present than right here in the exotic land of Mongolia. After all, we have wondered if there might be a smattering of Mongol blood in us—being the dark Finns that we are. Perhaps I could find something to stir up in you the ancient passions of the great Khans, or, at the very least, an interesting conversation piece for your mantle. So, with this in mind, I hit the streets earlier today in search of that perfect gift for you.
I wandered around the city for a couple of hours until I got myself completely lost on some narrow old side street. As luck would have it, though, I found some steps leading down to a small overgrown and beleaguered shop by the name of, The Tent of the Red Dragon. At least I think that was the correct translation; I’m still not very good at reading Chinese. I tried to look through the filthy ruddy windowpanes of the front door, but I couldn’t really see anything. When I turned the latch the door sprung open like it was warped and had been forced shut.
The inside of the shop was just as overgrown and cluttered as the outside except with less vegetation and more things. I saw knickknacks of every imaginable shape and color, ivory figurines and animals (illegal, I suspect) old books (nothing in English), and archaic weapons and costumes. A spider monkey ate some fruit nervously in a cage in one corner, and a motley assortment of cages, cartons, and luggage had been piled up in the opposite corner. As I surveyed the hodgepodge, a small mouse skittered along the floor by my feet (no, I didn’t scream). The Tent of the Red Dragon, in all its disarray, definitely held promise for someone in search of the unusual.