Monday, November 3, 2008


Tomorrow, November 4th, has all the makings of a truly historic, if not contentious day that promises to be one of the most memorable elections for some time to come. For awhile it appeared that Obama clearly had the momentum, and his campaign certainly has been more enthusiastic and energized than McCain’s. It hasn't been until this last week, though, that John McCain finally started to show some signs of life. If you expect to convince others of what you stand for, you have to be passionate about your beliefs.

In that regard John McCain has fallen flat, and has left it to Sarah Palin to get the crowds fired up. But these past few days, McCain has finally been saying why he wants to be the next President like he really means it. Obama, though, if the polls are any true indication, looks like he will be the declared winner. Looks like, that is unless the undecided’s truly become decided about the principles our country was founded on.

I’m not particularly crazy about McCain, and Palin, bless her heart, tends to grate on my ears with that annoying country-bumpkin twang, but in spite of the oddball political partners these two make, they do represent an idealism that is closer to what most Americans believe are the values that make this country great; liberty, of course, but also opportunity, enterprise, and responsibility.

With Obama, there are odd little curiosities that leave much to question. At the beginning of his campaign, his connection with Pastor Jeremiah Wright was subject for much nightly news fodder until Obama finally threw his long time friend under the bus. Regardless of his disassociation of Wright, one has to wonder how much of Obama’s values and beliefs have been shaped by a man who has been openly critical of Israel and has vehemently perpetuated the myth of a persecuted black in white society. As Wright has said in many sermons, “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run… We [in the U.S.] believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.”

Wright is entitled to believe what he wants, but what we certainly don’t need is a President who may harbor the same beliefs.

Another curiosity has been the symbol that features three red stripes crossing a white orb with a "sun" rising on a blue background. Obama uses this on his campaign plane, banners, and email. One can’t help wondering why he chose this particular symbol and whether it reflects any real meaning or not.

Obama, with his gift of eloquence, certainly has been effective in appealing to people’s sense of pathos. And with what we’ve experienced recently with the economic downturn in the housing market and the financial implosion on Wall Street, it is easy to be persuaded that we need a “new change.” Should Obama win, though, the change we may get may not be the “change” we expected or wanted.

By S L Cunningham

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Look to Berlin

Regardless of whether you’re a staunch Republican or Democrat, the one thing that can’t be denied is that this coming election promises to be unlike any election we have experienced in our history. Barack Obama, in spite of his so-called lack of experience and knowledge has not only succeeded in becoming a Presidential candidate, he has also become a cultural phenomenon, not because of his race or the fact that he is the first black candidate, but because of his ability to generate a message that resonates with what people are actually experiencing and feeling. Certainly, the speech he gave in Berlin the other day attests to that:

That is why I’m here. And you are here because you too know that yearning.This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom. And you know thatthe only reason we stand here tonight is because men and women from both of our nations came together to work, and struggle, and sacrifice for that better life.

Obama, as he said earlier in his speech, spoke to them “not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.”

And as a fellow citizen, he reminded Berliners of the wall that once divided them, and how Germans and Americans were able to unite together and bring about the eventual collapse of East Berlin. He spoke of duty that people and countries have toward one another, and that only by working together, will people be able to solve the major problems we are faced with today.

This September 11th will mark the seventh anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Although President Bush’s quick and decisive response to the attack gave the impression we were a country not to be messed with, his unilateralist polices that have framed our response to terror have had questionable results and consequences. Our attack on Afghanistan at the time seemed to be an appropriate response to the madness that was unleashed on us by Al Qaida. On the other hand, our invasion of Iraq seemed less certain in its rationale.

But as Obama emphasized in his speech, this war on terror is very real and must be defeated, not by isolationist policies, but by partnering with Europe and other free countries that are willing to share ideas and work together in the spirit of cooperation. As he says, “it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”

In that regard, I could not agree with him more. His speech in Berlin was not addressed so much to them, as it was to us here at home. More than anything, his speech spoke about the walls that divide us as a people. The Berlin Wall separated a city. A physical wall, though, can be torn down. It is the invisible walls created by race, religion, culture and politics that can be more impenetrable and divide us in ways not always easily understood or appreciated. In this election, Republicans and Democrats are further apart in their ideologies than ever before.

Since 9/11, we have been on the cusp of a major paradigm shift that neither party seems to have recognized or fully appreciate. The War on Terror is only one of the more serious threats we are faced with. Our addiction to oil, and the consequences we may be faced with by continuing increases in prices and eventual shortages, could force us to completely redefine how we live our day-to-day lives.

In contrast to Obama, John McCain’s campaign is fast becoming an asterisk. His is an ideology that does not resonate with the people, nor generate any excitement. He says “America needs leadership devoted to the public interest, not the special interest, and a government that fulfills its duties with unfailing integrity, accountability, and common sense.” But we have heard that before. He says he will “provide effective leadership for effective international efforts” in dealing with issues concerning low-carbon energy production, and that he will take a leadership role at the United Nations.

Mind you, I like John McCain. I appreciate his sense of duty and commitment to our country. I believe him when he says Americans have lost their trust in government. And I believe he is sincere in his intent to provide the kind of leadership we so badly need at this time. However, the pall Bush’s shadow has cast has made him appear to be more of a political anachronism than the charismatic politician that Obama has become.

Perhaps it is in that regard that I find myself conflicted; more so than I have been in any other election. That Obama is a skilled orator, able to affect his audiences’ sense of pathos by swooning them into believing his message of change and hope for the future, cannot be denied. What is questionable, though, is whether he has the fortitude and resolve to lead our country through the perils we will continue to be faced with. Oratory alone will not help us with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor will it effectively resolve the continued instability in the Middle East. Oratory certainly will not persuade Ahmadinejad to give up his quest to develop nuclear weapons for Iran. And, as proven in previous elections, oratory will not put gas in our tanks, create jobs, or pay our mortgages and rent.

In concluding his speech, Obama states that “the scale of our challenge is great.”Whether that is a profound understatement or an example of fumbling naiveté is subject to debate. Regardless, it is the fumbling naiveté I worry about, since more often than not, it leads to bitter disillusionment. Yes, as he says, “this is our moment. This is our time.” But does he have the courage to provide the real leadership we so desperately need? Come November 4th, that is the question I will be thinking about when I go to the election booth to cast my vote.

By S L Cunningham

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Coming home soon

After nearly four weeks since I last heard from my son, he called last Thursday to wish me a happy 4th of July, and to give me some good news. “We’re packing up and getting ready to redeploy back to Italy." After nearly 15 months in the Korengal Valley, one of the worst places to serve in Afghanistan, my son’s tour of duty is finally near its end.

The beast that the Marines and 10th Mountain Division tried to tame has finally been subdued. As my son said, “We had Afghani government officials touring the area last week for the first time. That would not have happened last year.”

As a farewell to the Taliban, Battle Company posted a video on "YouTube" that gives a glimpse of the fighting they engaged in with the insurgents. 957 firefights later, the men of the 173rd Airborne are coming home.

OEF8 173rd Airborne Infantry

(Contains violence and some language)

By S L Cunningham

Monday, June 30, 2008

Election 2008—the “Big Mo”

In the world of sports, momentum is a well understood concept. If you expect to win, you have to have momentum going in, and you have to sustain it throughout the game. Of course, the other team or players sometimes are successful in changing the momentum but not often. Simply put, momentum is the will to win and overcome your opponent no matter how tough the game becomes. In spite of a knee injury, Tiger Woods found a way to win the US Open. And in spite of Kobe Bryant’s best effort to rally the Lakers, Boston won the NBA championship.

This election year sports Barack Obama against John McCain in the national championship for President of the United States. And in spite of McCain’s best effort so far, Obama clearly has the momentum. He has had the momentum since first winning the Iowa primary, and spite of a couple of good runaway second and fourth quarters when Hillary won California, Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania, Obama maintained the momentum by winning virtually all of the smaller states. Hillary played it to the final second, but had to graciously concede defeat. If Obama sustains the momentum throughout the election campaign, John McCain is going to end up seeing his best days behind him.

From day one, Obama has remained steadfast in his message: “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington . . . I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

That he is also running openly as a populist and a socialist would seem counter-intuitive to becoming a serious candidate, but considering how much hardship has been created for everyday working folk by capitalistic greed, McCain’s message of “pro-growth; pro-democracy” seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Recently Obama announced he would forgo public funding of his campaign and instead would rely on the individual donations of his supporters. McCain called foul, and said Obama has gone back on his word when he promised he would take federal funding for his campaign if his opponent did the same: "This is a big deal, a big deal," McCain said. "He has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people."

To McCain it is an issue of character, but to Obama it is a slam dunk of playing hard against his opponent and moving on. It would do McCain good to stop squabbling and get back to the game by giving up public funding as well.

Regardless, public funding or otherwise, McCain is going to have to play his best game by convincing the American people that he is every bit as sincere as to why he thinks he should be the next President of the United States, and I believe he is.

However, with recent failures in mortgages, rampant increases in energy, food and other goods, and stagnant wages, the Republicans are fast becoming a party that is about to be completely ostracized come November 4th. When you consider the average American who hasn’t had any significant pay increase in the last two years, you can only imagine the emotions that begin percolating when their paycheck hardly covers basic expenses. People are mad, and when people are mad, they get on that roller coaster of emotion and take a ride with whoever is promising a better deal. That is why Obama has the momentum, and John McCain doesn’t. People want change, not political principles or ideology. However, the change people might end up getting might be considerably less in their pocket then they may realize.

Carter was elected because Gerald Ford was perceived as a continued extension of Nixon’s presidency. During Carter’s presidency, we had run-away inflation, and a president who could not be decisive on anything. The Democrats are taking advantage of the perception that McCain’s presidency would be a George Bush third term—different face, yes, but business as usual.

Of course the Republicans will have only themselves to blame should McCain lose the election. George Bush has been largely ineffectual in his leadership during his second term, and perhaps has been too focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and not enough on domestic issues here at home. His economic stimulus plan, though well-intentioned, was too little, too late. And if the housing crisis continues to worsen, and gas prices continue to spiral upward, George Bush is going to cast a huge shadow over McCain’s campaign that will make it near impossible for him to step out from under.

Regardless, Obama is not going to fold or collapse mid-way. Whatever statements made about him as inexperienced or incapable of leading this country are contrary to the image of a man who is poised and confident in his message and is skillful in his tactics. He’s on the move, and he’s going to be hard to stop—not because he is convinced he will win; but because he has envisioned himself as already won.

During the election of 1980, Bush declared he had the “Big Mo,” but Reagan, who had to tough it out a couple of times had the momentum from the beginning and was able to sustain it throughout his campaign. He won the GOP nomination and the presidency. If Obama continues to move forward as he has been, then he will be the next President of the United States.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

“. . . The Surpassing One We Make”

(In Response To Your Card)

By the bank of the river, naked,
You clutch a clump of pussy willows
With both hands and slowly bend
And pull downward, forming

The shape of a heart, and for
The first time I understand
The significance of what it means
To say, “I love you.”

Let me cross, then, and grasp
Your hands, and together be grafted
At the rib, for you need no longer doubt
Whether or not I perceive the subtlety
Of our instinct to surrender as two reeds
Planted as one among the replenishing water.

By S L Cunningham

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Leonardo da Vinci’s needed to address global issues

Saturday night I went to the movies to catch “Iron Man,” which turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. I found that I was particularly mesmerized by Downey’s performance, and thought it was one of the best action-hero flicks I’ve seen in a while.

After the movie, I headed to The House of Pies for my usual patty melt with a cup of coffee and a slice of egg-custard pie for dessert. It’s your typical American diner and there’s nothing retro about the décor. According to the manager, they’ve done little upgrading since it first opened in 1964.

I took my usual stool at the counter. The place was buzzing, and a lot of spirited conversation seemed to be going on, especially with the two gentlemen sitting to the left of me.

“It just makes me sick whenever I go fill up for gas or buy groceries. Can you believe how much we’re paying these days? I spent $98 bucks to fill up my tank the other day.”

“Just a repeat of 1980,” said the other guy sitting next to me.

A repeat of 1980? Back then the jump in fuel prices from about 67 cents a gallon to a $1.10 did create a lot of panic, especially with the long lines that snaked around entire blocks. A couple times when you finally made it to the pump after spending two hours in line, the attendant came out and put up the sign: “Out of gas. Closed.”

Whenever I had to get gas during that time, I made sure to bring plenty of work with me. I remember writing an entire term paper for English in one of those lines. But what hardship we endured affected us mostly in terms of convenience, not economics, since we already had become fairly accustomed to rampant inflation during the seventies.

One of the funniest things I remember when gas crossed the $1 threshold was that many stations had to sell it by the half-gallon, since most pumps back then didn’t register more than 99.9 cents.

“Don’t know about 1980,” said the other guy. “All I know is that my damn truck’s eating up all my money and I got less in my wallet at the end of the month than I did a couple months ago.”

The waitress set down a cup of coffee and took my order.

Earlier that day, CNN reported that the national average for gas is now $4 a gallon, though here in Houston, were still hovering around $3.89. With no end in site, I imagine it won’t be too long before we’re well past $4.

The guy sitting next to me picked back up on his argument with the other guy. “Adjusted for inflation, the price of a gallon of gas in 1980 is only slightly less than we are paying now. It really isn’t that much different.”

“Well, don’t know about that. But if it keeps getting any worse, I’m going to be getting rid of my truck. Going to slap a “For Sale” sign on her and kiss that baby goodbye” said the other guy as he stood up to leave.

In 1980 I was a full-time student at Cal-State Long Beach. I was on the GI Bill that provided me with a monthly check for $348. I also took home about $360 a month by working 20 hours a week as a tour guide on the Queen Mary. Altogether, my total monthly income was a little over $725 a month.

Rent was $150. Electric and phone was around $18. The only other expense I had was car insurance that averaged out at about $12 a month. I didn’t have a car payment.

The car I had at the time, a 1971 Toyota Corolla station wagon, was easy on gas and fun to drive. It had a 1.3 liter engine that put out about 110 horse power and got about 26 miles to the gallon. Not very efficient compared to today’s four cylinder engines, but certainly much more efficient than most V8’s at that time that averaged about 15 miles to the gallon.

I did drive around a lot, then, especially with many weekend excursions to Los Angeles. After gas had crossed a buck a gallon, I cut back some, but not much. Still, I never spent more than $7 to $8 a week on gas.

Even though money was tight at times, I never felt like I was impoverished. After I added in my monthly food budget of $60, I still had over half of my monthly income left. Much of that was used to buy books and cover student fees, but I still had enough left where I could go out to eat on a pretty regular basis.

I looked at the patty melt and fries my waitress placed in front of me. There isn’t anything more satisfying then the aroma of a hot toasted sandwich off the grill, and a plate of sizzling fries straight from the fryer vat. I asked for the ketchup bottle from the guy sitting next to me.

As he handed me the bottle, he asked, “What do you think about the high cost of gas?”

I looked at him and said, “Don’t know really, except that it seems to be creating more of an economic hardship for everyone than it did in 1980.”

No sooner than I finished my sentence, he whipped out his but-adjusted for-inflation-argument on me. “Well, yeah, gas at $4.00 a gallon seems high, but adjusted for inflation, today’s price is only slightly higher than what people were paying for a gallon of gas in 1980.”

“That may be true,” I said, “as I took a small bite from my patty melt, “but what I don’t think anybody is taking the time to look at is the ratio of income to the cost of gas, food, shelter, and other expenses.” That is the rub I have with this guy who doesn’t think there’s any real difference from then and now.

In terms of adjusting for inflation, items today may not cost much more than they did twenty-five, thirty years ago. What has changed. though, and what makes us pay more attention to ever increasing prices, is that the ratio of income to the cost of gas, food, and shelter has become disproportionate over time. In my estimation, wages have not kept up with inflation over the years, and as a result we are making less but paying more.

“Ratio of income?” he says, “What’s that got to do with anything. Wages are higher today than ever before.”

I grabbed a napkin and took out my pen from my pocket, adding up my expenses for food, gas, car insurance, and utilities. In 1980, my total expenses only ate up 36% of my net income. I added up my expenses that I’m spending now on those same items and discover that it takes up 54% of my income. Thus, as I explained to him, I am actually paying more with less.

He didn’t have a response right off. After a few minutes he looked at me and said, “Never thought of it that way before.” He picked up his tab from the counter. “How much was a cup of coffee and a slice of pie back in 1980?

“Most places? Forty cents for a cup of coffee and a slice pie would set you back for about $1.25”

“Well, adjusted for inflation, $4.85 today seems about right. Not all that much more now than then.”

“True,” I said, “except that today you have less discretionary income to spend on pie and coffee then you did in 1979, thus it actually costs you more to enjoy it today than it did back then.”

“Well, got me there, I suppose.”

He shook his head and walked toward the register to pay his tab.

I went back to finishing my egg-custard pie. As I was taking a bite, I thought back on the movie I seen earlier. If only we could develop a power source similar to Tony’s “Ark Reactor,” but on a much larger scale that would not only propel our vehicles, but also provide energy for entire cities.

In the movie, Tony (aka “Iron man”) is referred to as the “da Vinci” of our time. Today, more than ever, we need real Leonardo da Vinci’s to address the myriad of problems were faced with today—not just with oil dependence, but with the depletion of other natural resources, pollution, emerging economies in third world countries, and global poverty.

By S L Cunningham

Featured in the Culture section of Blogcritics

Monday, June 2, 2008

All quiet on the home front

"War - I know it well, and the butchery of men
Well I know. . .”
Homer, The Iliad

Houston, Texas -- This first day of June 2008 is turning out to be a real scorcher. It’s just past noon, and the temperature’s at 94 degrees with a heat index of 101. In spite of the hot day we’re having, I head out to Memorial Park for my Sunday afternoon walk on the mountain bike trails that meander through a lush green and densely vegetated forest featuring giant loblolly pines and massive water oaks.

In a city the size of Houston, it is good to have a place such as this. As soon as I step into the forest, the canopy erases any sense of being in a large metropolitan area. It isn’t too long before you find yourself taken in by the smell of pine and magnolia. Aside from the physical benefits of a five mile hike, it is also good to have a place for wrestling with any particular angst you may be experiencing, which, in my case, I have been experiencing a lot lately.

It’s been one year since my son was deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Division. He’s a paratrooper assigned to 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry. Since “Operation Rock Avalanche,” last October, his unit has made its home at Firebase Restrepo in the Korengal Valley; an outpost built on a mountain outcropping, “rockbag” by “rockbag.” It was named in honor of Army medic Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed by small arms fire after his unit came under attack by the Taliban.

In an article that appeared in the January 2008 issue of “Vanity Fair,” Sebastian Junger wrote: “The Korengal is widely considered to be the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan, and Second Platoon is considered the tip of the spear for the American forces there.”

Certainly his time over there has not been easy for him or the men he serves with, but they have handled the situations they’ve had to face remarkably well, especially the cold winter months they had to endure. But with the generous donations they received from friends, family, and the community of Belfast, Maine that adopted the 173rd, they had an ample supply of tuna, beef jerky, hand warmers, arctic socks, and thermal underwear that made being out in the cold a little easier to take.

When I asked my son in an email how he was holding up to the weather, I got a response that was the best possible assurance he could give me that he was going to be just fine: “I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold before. It got down to -5 or so. And you know it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been in -degree weather; after all, it got to -30 once in Maine. But I was never like, hmm, let’s go . . . sleep outside in it.” And sleep outside in it they did through three long months of sub-freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.

When my son was here on leave last month, you never got any sense from him that he had been through one hell of an ordeal. It was so good to finally see him. Running around for whole a year carrying 80 to 100 pounds of weapons, ammo, and other equipment has put muscles on him that make young women fawn into long stares whenever he walks into a bar or nightclub. We spent one night in Austin to take in the “blues scene” and I had just as much fun watching the young ladies clamoring around him as I did listening to the music.

Needless to say, I will be glad when he is finally home safe and sound. It has been hard not to worry about him. I try to assure myself constantly that he will be OK but even still, it is not a particularly easy thing to do. That quintessential “What if?” always seems to linger in the back of my mind.

While leaning against a giant pine overlooking the meandering water of the Buffalo Bayou, it occurs to me just how scarred to death I’ve been these past several months that something terrible might happen to him. And even though I felt relived when he was here on leave, I have started to feel anxious again knowing that he’s back in the thick of it, and has three hard months left to go.

Sometimes I chide myself for even thinking such thoughts, but the truth is I really don’t know how I would react should I ever become the parent who comes home to find two Army soldiers waiting for him at his doorstep. I can only imagine the pain and grief a parent experiences over the loss of a son or daughter killed in action. I cannot say what that experience would be for me. It is one I hope I never have.

Even though it is a sultry hot afternoon, the shade from the trees towering above, with a slight, constant breeze, makes for a comfortable walk along the trial that runs along the bank of the bayou. I reflect back on a letter he had written to his grandmother that he shared with me. In describing his experience in the Korengal, he said:

There's no other time in your life
that you will feel as alive as you do
in the seconds that you are in a real
firefight. There is no comparing it.
Jumping out of a plane is one thing:
you face the probability of death with
a certainty of success. Success is not
guaranteed in the Korengal. Everyone
wears the same face; everyone gets the
same feelings. We all are aware that
every bullet has a final destination.

Spoken like a true warrior with keen insight and understanding of the reality he has to contend with each and everyday.

As I head back to my car, I reminisce on my experiences I had with him during his childhood. Among my favorites was the time when he was three years old during the Christmas of 1989. We had just finished decorating the outside of the house with blue Christmas lights. He liked the effect so much that he wanted to camp outside in front of the lights. And so I pitched the tent, piled in lots of blankets and rolled out the sleeping bags. It was a cold night, but not anywhere near as frigid as were the long winter nights he experienced in Afghanistan.

It is good to spend time out here in the woods. I especially like how the mid-afternoon sun filters down from the tops of the trees, enhancing the lushness of the undergrowth. As I walk out from under the canopy, I am greeted by a blast of hot air from the parking lot. “He’ll be just fine” I say to myself. “He’ll be just fine.”

By S L Cunningham

Published in The Waldo Independent, 6 June 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, and grackles

Two natural disasters within two weeks in the southeast region of the world have been keeping the nightly news buzzing with the latest death counts. The May 3rd cyclone that slammed into Myanmar is now said to have a death count of 137,000 or more, and the latest death count from the recent earthquake in China is not at 57,000 or more.

Considering that it’s only been two and half years since the Asian Tsunami that claimed over 200,000 people, that region of the world has experienced an unprecedented loss of life and destruction of property. In some places, entire families and villages have simply disappeared.

It is hard sometimes to imagine what it would be like to sit on a set of stairs of what once was your home and realize that not only is your house gone, but so is your entire family and community. Even in our own country, with the recent tornadoes of the Midwest said to be the worst in ten years, similar scenes have also been broadcast on our nightly news.

I’ve never considered myself to be a pessimistic sort of fellow. I like my glass half-full, thank you very much. But as I think about the events we have experienced these past few years, about my own son fighting over in Afghanistan, it has become increasingly more difficult to be on the sunny side of anything, especially with our looming economic crisis brought on the by the high cost of oil.

The only other time I can remember that even compares to the turbulence and agony we’ve sensed and experienced since 2001 is the 1960’s. However, most of the events that occurred during that time— the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the DC street riots, Watergate—had more to do with changes in our politics and culture.

As John Lennon sang in “Give Peace a Chance,” it was the decade of “Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, That-ism.” And as much as it may have been a chaotic time anchored by the war in Vietnam and the counterculture movement that swept the campuses of America, we were able to adjust to the anarchy generated during those years just fine. We embraced the music, accepted the hippie’s mantra of peace and love, and moved on into the seventies no worse for the wear on our collective psyche.

But there is something different about this decade, something that seems more ominous and uninviting. The turbulence and agony experienced thus far, beginning with 9/11 and the events that have followed—the War on Terror, Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, and the recent events in Myanmar and China—has created a pall of despair that makes what happened during the sixties seem almost benign.

It used to be I liked watching the news, but I’m finding lately that the “sensory overload” sometimes is a bit more than I can take. I can no more do anything about the events transpiring around me than I could with the events that transpired during the sixties. And so it gets to where I have to shut the TV off and focus on the things I can attend to.

As I’m writing this, I hear what sounds like a spoon scraping against the side of a plastic pitcher as it stirs the contents of an ice tea mix. I look out the patio door and discover the source of the unusual sound is a great-tailed grackle perched on the top of my bird feeder. It doesn’t surprise me, though. Since living here in Houston, I’ve learned that great-tailed grackles have an impressive repertoire of chirps, chortles, screeches, whoops, and metallic clacking noises.

It is almost as if they are fascinated with their own voices and seem to constantly try and create a new sound to out rival the others in its flock. With these birds I’ve heard “gronks,” and high pitched shrills that mimic the sound of an ambulance siren as it comes up to an intersection, but I haven’t heard anything like what this bird is doing now as it grates the inside of the pitcher with its incessant “scrape,” “scrape,” “scrape,” “scrape!”

My feeder attracts an impressive assortment of birds, mostly sparrows, but also frequent visits from cardinals, waxwings, yellow warblers, and nuthatches. The patio window makes for great “kitty TV” for my cat, and for hours on end he’ll lie outstretched on the carpet in front of the glass with a lazy eye on all the activity without any real concern or excitement.

It is with the great-tailed grackle, though, that my cat has a certain nervous trepidation. Ever since the day one came hob-bobbing across the patio and stood within inches of my cat, separated only by the patio screen, did my cat become phobic about grackles. Just as my cat lifted its head up to see what this bird was all about, the grackle suddenly stuck up its chest, fanned out its back tail feathers, and let out a screech that sounded like a car in need of a serious brake job. It almost looked like a scene out of “Jurassic Park.”

My cat lifted a good foot and half off the floor, did a one-eighty, and split for the back bedroom closet. It would be another two hours before he would come back out again, albeit slowly and tightly wired. Just a small scuff on the carpet with my foot was enough to make him freeze in a prickly hunch until he realized it was just me. I picked him up and patted him until he finally settled into a more relaxed purr.

It would be another two weeks, though, before he would even consider going back to his favorite spot that catches the morning sun he so loves to stretch out in. He’s OK with a grackle on the birdhouse, but as soon as one flits on the patio, that’s it; he’s gone.

By S L Cunningham

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Irish good luck cookies

Since I signed up with Netflix a few years back, I have been renting TV shows that were popular during the time I was growing up, which would've been the late fifties and early sixties. So far I’ve managed to view the entire series of “The Rifleman,” “Combat,” and “Route 66.”

For my next series, I rented “The Best of Bonanza, Vol. 1.” Of the episodes watched so far, “The Saga of Annie O’Toole” had a scene with Adam and Annie opening a restaurant, and the scent of her cooking wafting through the air brought in all the miners looking for a good home cooked meal. As I watched that particular scene, it brought me back to a time when my mother would take me over to my aunt’s house to visit with her and my cousins.

Just off the back kitchen door of my aunt’s house was a long, narrow, enclosed porch that served as the playroom for my cousins Sally, Susie and Sandy. Facing southeast with several large windows, the porch, except for cloudy days, was always warm and brightly lit from the sun.

Whenever I came to visit, my cousins never had much for a boy like me to play with. But that never bothered me because my cousins always had something for me to do. Whether it was a walk up the street to get a bag of Fireballs at Carchedi's Store, or a walk to the Commons to play hide and seek, I never felt bored or out of place.

My cousin, Sandy, was especially creative, and her imagination was without boundaries. She had a play stove that was her favorite toy. Made from wood, its top had four mock burners painted black on a white surface. It also came complete with an oven that had a temperature control dial painted red just above the door.

Most times when I came to visit, I knew just what Sandy wanted to do. She was the Betty Crocker of mud pies. And I was the one who she always picked first to taste test her inventive goodies. Sometimes she even let me help her make the batter. One particular Saturday morning she had something really different in mind. “Ever have Irish Good Luck Cookies?” she asked as she swept back her long, brown hair with her mud caked hand.

“Nope,” I replied.

“Well, good,” she said. “You can help me gather up some of the ingredients I’ll need.”

Her recipe called for 2 cups of dirt, 1 cup of sand, a half-cup of small pebbles, three cups of water, and a half-cup of clover. In picking the clover, she asked if I would look especially hard for a four-leaf clover. “Mixing one of those in will make our batch more powerful and will bring the best of luck to us,” she said.

After gathering the ingredients, she mixed them together in a large stainless steel bowl that was used as a water dish by their neighbor's dog, Troubles. She had me help her shape the batter into the size cookie she wanted. We made a dozen and then placed them on her cookie sheet. After putting them into the oven to bake, she set the temperature at 350 degrees. She then set her pretend timer for twenty minutes, but I don’t think we ever left them in there for more than five.

When they were done, she removed them from the cookie sheet and placed them on a large, chipped blue plate, ready to be served. Of course we never really ate them but it was a lot of fun pretending.

After we finished, I helped her clean up the mixing bowl, cookie sheet and serving plate. It wasn’t too long after that before you began to get a whiff of real chocolate wafting from the kitchen window. I knew it wouldn’t be too long before my aunt called us all in for lunch. We washed up and then sat down to the table for grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and for dessert, the best homemade chocolate chip cookies you could ever eat.

By S. L. Cunningham

Thursday, May 8, 2008

18 minutes of glory

With more summer like weather upon us, I find I’m getting out and about more often. Even though it is a late April day here in Houston, it feels more like a hot July day in Maine.

For today’s get-out-and-about adventure, I decided to attend the San Jacinto Day Festival and Battle Reenactment. I’m not much of a history buff per say, but once you learn about what transpired here on April 21, 1836, you leave with a greater appreciation of how significant this event was and how vastly different our country might be today if Santa Ana and his army had been able to mount a successful counter-attack.

It was on this prairie at 4 p.m. that General Sam Houston gave the final order for his ragtag army of 800 men to attack Santa Anna's encampment of 1400 men. Even though Santa Ana had success at Goliad and the Alamo, it was here at San Jacinto that his ill-fated expedition into Texas came to an end.

Unprepared for the kind of fighting that Houston had unleashed upon them, Santa Ana and the soldiers of the Mexican army fled in every direction to avoid being killed. When the battle ended 18 minutes later, Santa Ana had lost over 630 men, with many more wounded and captured. Among the captured was Santa Ana, whose identity was given up by his own soldiers. Houston’s army? Only 6 casualties and 13 wounded.

To later commemorate this event, the San Jacinto monument was constructed during a three year period from 1936 to 1939. At 570 feet, it is the world’s tallest war memorial, and is 15 feet taller than the Washington monument. Topping the monument is a nine point, 35 foot star that weighs 220 tons. Equally impressive, though, is its art deco design, and the material it is constructed from: a combination of cement and steel, faced with Cordova shell stone quarried from Burnet County, Texas.

To give visitors a sense of what happened on this site during that day of April 21, there are eight panels on the base of the monument—two to each side—that are inscribed with descriptions of the events that culminated in Houston’s decisive victory over Santa Ana, and the significance that the battle played in determining the future of our country:

With the battle cry, ‘Remember the Alamo!
Remember Goliad!’ the Texans charged the
enemy, taken by surprise, rallied for a few
minutes, then fled in disorder. The Texans
had asked no quarter, and gave none, the
slaughter was appalling, victory complete,
and Texas free! The following day,
General Lopez De Santa Ana, self-styled
‘Napoleon of the West,’ received from
a generous foe the mercy he had denied
Travis at the Alamo and Fannin at Goliad.

After I read all eight inscriptions, I went into the monument and purchased a $4 ticket for an elevator ride that takes you 500 feet up to the observation deck. It affords an incredible view of the ship channel, the refineries, and on a clear day, the skyline of Houston. Today was a bit overcast and as such Houston was barely visible, but even still, you come away with a good impression of just how vast the Houston metropolitan area is.

With a half hour to go before the battle reenactment began, I headed over to the food court and ordered a barbecue chipped beef sandwich with a bag of chips. For 5 bucks, it was a pretty good deal, but I’m not sure about the 3 dollars charged for a 20oz bottle of water. Seems liquid is becoming a high priced commodity these days no matter what form it is in.

After I finished eating, I strolled on over to the battleground. When I stumbled upon the Texian camp, it was as if I were transported back in time. People were costumed in period dress, and quite a few were grouped outside their tents attending to cook fires, and listening to stories of the day.

The calm setting didn’t last long when a cannon shot indicated that the battle was about to begin. First to be reenacted were the events that preceded the battle. A voice cried out, “Santa Ana is coming! Santa Ana is coming!” And with that a procession of scarred settlers, who had heard about the news of what happened at Goliad and the Alamo, gathered up what few belongings they had and began to flee eastward toward Louisiana.

A little girl who was sitting on the ground in front of me covered her ears when the musket shots started to ring out. A young boy about six or seven took out his guns made from carved wood and started shooting at the Mexican Army. One of the riders on a horse came up suddenly fast within twenty feet of the rope before stopping and then making a quick turn back to engage the enemy. It was enough to cause the little girl in front of me to let out quite a shriek.

The air, filled with the thick haze and acrid smell of gunpowder, brought back memories of when I was in infantry training with the Marines. I remembered an exercise we had completed when the sergeant came up to us and said, “Remember, always take the fight to your enemy.” On that day of April 21, 1836, that is exactly what General Sam Houston and his army did to Santa Ana.

As one of the panels on the San Jacinto monument attests:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the
decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas
from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the
Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the
United States
of the States of Texas, New Mexico,
, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts
of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost
one-third of the present area of the American nation,
nearly a million square miles of territory changed

Imagine that. A million square miles acquired in a matter of eighteen minutes. Perhaps a little exaggerated, but even still, the magnitude of that eventful day cannot be ignored. I swigged the last of my three dollar bottle of water, and headed for downtown Houston to Little Napoli Ristorante on Texas and Main for a quiet dinner of veal parmigiana served with capellini pasta. As I sat at my table on the patio in view of Houston's tallest buildings, I wondered what might be here instead had it not been for General Sam Houston’s decisive victory over the self-styled "Napoleon of the West."

By S L Cunningham

Reference: The San Jacinto Museum

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Looks like it's going to be a perfect 10

According to Gene Norman, the weather guy on Channel 11 here in Houston, these past few days have been unusually warm and humid. As he says, “The muggies are back!” Compared to Maine where I lived before moving here two years ago, “muggies” are not too hard to take, especially with temperatures near ninety during the day and low seventies during the night.

Most of my neighbors in the apartment complex where I live have had their AC's cranking at full force, but I leave mine off and instead go old fashion by opening my patio screen door. With a tower fan in my living room, and a slight breeze blowing through the screen, I find I'm more than comfortable, and don't really seem to be too bothered by the humidity.

Today was a particularly exhausting day at work. As a disability advocate, I occasionally have to represent clients who’ve had their claims for Social Security disability denied. When clients have been denied on their initial claim, they can file for Reconsideration. If the initial decision is upheld, they can then request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. I spent most of this day writing a brief for a hearing that I have coming up within the next month

Preparing for a hearing is pretty intensive work. It involves a complete review of medical history and records, job history, and what an individual's specific limitations are as a result of their medical condition. Also involves considerable research sometimes. Especially when a client has a medical diagnosis you're unfamiliar with.

For instance, I once had a client diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome. I never heard of that before but I recognized the meaning of the Latin words right off. “Cauda” means tail, whereas “equina” relates to horses. I translated her condition as “horse tail” syndrome and was struck with a bizarre image of a poor lady switching flies. Turns out that it’s a very serious condition that involves compression of the peripheral nerves at the base of the tail bone. As a result the condition can make sitting extremely uncomfortable and painful, and can often lead to paralysis of both legs from the waist on down. In her case I was able to get her claim for disability approved at the initial level.

As the sun begins to set, the air begins to fill with the song of birds, punctuated by the melodic tones of my wind chime. I add to the harmony by putting on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The ambiance I’ve created calls for a bottle of Guinness. I sit down on the couch facing the patio to do a little writing in my journal, and then pick back up on a couple of books I've been reading.

This year has marked a particularly interesting milestone in my life. Both my son and daughter are now “legal.” Last year my son turned twenty-one, and this year it was my daughter's turn. Last month my son arrived here in Houston from Afghanistan on 18 days leave. First thing he wanted to do was take me out for a beer. Imagine that, my son buying me a beer. It was good to see him, and we were hoping to make a trip up to Maine to visit with friends and family, but it turned out 18 days really wasn't enough time to fit in every thing he had hoped to do before having to head back.

He'll have leave again this coming September and hopes to make a visit with friends and family then. The community of Belfast has been incredibly supportive to him and the men he serves with in Battle Company, 2nd/503rd, 173rd Airborne. They adopted the 173rd and provided much appreciated necessities during the long, cold winter months. Warm socks, tuna fish, beef jerky, hand-warmers and other items sent by the community went a long way in keeping their spirits up during that frigid time. In an email sent in response to my question of how he was handling being out in the cold, my son said, “I know I grew up in Maine and experienced a lot of cold winters, but I was never like, 'Hey, let's go camping out in this.'”

It was so good to see him. He's so full of life and at times, himself, but that goes with the territory of being “bad ass.” When I was a Marine, I had the same attitude and can-do spirit. Considering the immense fighting he has had to participate in, he has done a terrific job with keeping his emotions intact. Oh, sure, occasionally you can catch a glimpse of him locked in a “battle stare,” but his sense of empathy and compassion toward others has not suffered much--nor has his sense of humor--and he is optimistic about his future.

I put my journal down on the coffee table and step outside for a short walk. As the sun begins to slowly dip below the horizon, the clouds begin to appear brushed with the soft hues of pink, white and purple swirls. If I were Gene Norman, the weather guy on Channel 11, I would say tomorrow, “Looks like it's going to be a perfect 10.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Distractions, boredom and a new URL

It’s been almost two years since I moved from Belfast, Maine to Houston. During this period I have spent most of my time trying to become acclimated to my new surroundings. When you come to live in a city so expansive in its geography, it’s kind of hard to figure out where in Houston you want to be. There’s the Heights, Montrose, the Galleria, Downtown, the Medical Center, the Museum District, and the list goes on. Each area mentioned is large enough in size and population to be its own city. And if you were to isolate the Medical Center by itself, you would have the ninth largest city in the United States.

Needless to say, getting lost in Houston is very easy to do. But I’ve gotten to where I now have a general sense of what direction I’m going in whereas before I couldn’t tell east from west or north from south.

The distraction of trying to become comfortable with a new job and a new place to live unfortunately doesn’t contribute to getting much writing done. But I’ve become comfortable in my new apartment, and have a screen to my sliding glass door that lets in a good supply of fresh air. I hung a three foot long wind chime just above my patio door that creates the perfect background noise for reading a book, or for sitting down to write.

While lost in distraction these past few years, I’ve spent more time watching TV than I normally would. Becomes a habit that’s hard to break sometimes. But I can only take so much mindless absorption before I’m completely bored. A couple of weeks ago I decided to turn off the television and become reacquainted with my thoughts.

First thing I thought I’d do was dust off my blogsite and bring it up to date. That’s when I learned Blogger made a switch in its formatting, and as such, I couldn’t log into my site. Tried everything I could think of and spent hours trying out different suggestions I found by researching the internet. Even sent Blogger a couple of nasty emails to which I have yet to receive a response. Finally I gave up and recreated my blog by switching to a new URL.

Unburned Pieces of the Mind still shows up under However, I can’t post to it anymore. So I copied the source code and recreated my blog that now uses the following URL: The next hurdle to overcome is with getting everyone linked to my old site to hitch up to my new site. Why Blogger had to make something relatively simple and easy to use so extremely difficult and frustrating is beyond me.

Anyway, getting late. We had a good line storm that came through this morning with lots of rain, lightening and thunder. It’s a little on the cool side tonight but the sky is a dark cobalt blue . Think I’ll grab a Linda Ronstadt cd and take a drive through downtown. On a night like this, all the buildings will be perfectly lit up against the sky. After driving down Smith Street, I’ll head over to the Pie House on Kirby and sit myself down to a cup of coffee and a big slice of egg-custard pie.

By S. L. Cunningham

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Getting lost in Houston

On July 11, I called my mother to wish her a happy birthday. As I was talking with her, I could hear a loud crackling over the phone. “Do you got static going on?” I asked.

“Yeah, I got a rip-roaring thunderstorm going on over my head.”

We talked just long enough for me to give her the news that I accepted a job offer as a Public Assistance Advocate.

“That’s great. Almost a birthday present in itself now that I don’t have to worry about you,” she said as the line crackled again. “Did you hear that?” she asked. “I think I need to get off the phone.”

“Call you tomorrow,” I said.

The job offer from MASH (Medical Advocacy Services for Healthcare} could not have come at a better time. I’ve been in Houston for over a month now and I’m just about flat broke. Thanks to food and other expenses being less than what I had anticipated, my funds have held up fairly well. But I’m not sure how I’m going to get through the next couple of weeks until my first check. I told my cat not to worry, though. Pigeons are plentiful here.

The job almost didn’t happen, and I really didn’t expect to be offered the position since I was horribly late for the interview. Although I’m getting better at finding my way around, Houston is, as some people say here, “inmenso” in its geographical size.

How big? Well, bigger than the state of Connecticut. Yeah, imagine that. Over 6,200 sq, miles compared to Connecticut’s area of 5,800 sq, miles. I’ve learned that when somebody says, “Oh, we’re just ‘cross town,” you better look at a map. They could be 40 to 60 miles from where you are. Though Houston is the fourth largest city in population, its geographical area makes it the largest city in the United States. Good luck if you get lost here. MapQuest even has a hard time figuring out where you are, much less where you want to go.

And so it was on the day of my interview with Tim Lacy that I happened to get quite lost on the 610 Loop. I headed out an hour before my 2pm appointment, figuring it wouldn’t take more than a half hour to get to the Washington Mutual building where he said his office was located. I followed the route exactly as MapQuest had given, except that when I got off the exit it gave, I could not find any of the landmarks Mr. Lacy had indicated. No cross street named Buffalo Speedway, no stadium, and no bank building. And even though the frontage road sign said I was in the 3000-3500 block, which is where I needed to be, something clearly wasn’t quite right.

I looked at the directions again. From the route it gave, I was where I was supposed to be, but it was obvious something was wrong. The only things adjacent to this block were a lone convenience store, and a run-down residential area. I looked at the time. Ten to two. Great. The one job opportunity that looked tailored made to my background in social service and education, and I felt like I was about to kiss it goodbye.

I hopped back on the 610 and started to backtrack in the direction I had come, but when I didn’t see anything that made sense as to where I was, much less where I was going, I pulled off and stopped at a Valero station. I approached the lady behind the counter. “Do you know how to get to S 3003 W Loop?” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t know.

After asking a few more people, I gave up. It seems most people don’t know how to get to any other place in Houston, either, except the place they’re already in. Knowing I didn’t see anything that looked even close to what Mr. Lacy had described, I got back on the 610 and headed south. Ten minutes past two, I called Mr. Lacy and apologized for being late, and then explained I was quite lost. “Where are you?” he asked.

As if I knew.

“I just went back over the harbor channel heading south.”

“Oh, my, you’re quite a ways out. Didn’t you see Reliant stadium? We’re right across from there. You want to take the Buffalo Speedway exit and then turn left. The Washington Mutual building will be on the right. Don’t worry, though. My 2:30 is early, so I’ll start with her. Just try to be here in the next thirty minutes. I have a plane I need to catch back to Dallas.”

“On my way,” I said, thanking him for being understanding.

Twenty minutes later, Reliant Stadium came into view. And there on the left was the Washington Mutual building, I parked my car and jaunted up the stairs to the second floor. “Hi, I’m Scot Cunningham,” I said, announcing myself to the receptionist.

“Oh, you’re the gentleman who’s lost,” she said.

“Was,” I said.

“I’ll let Mr. Lacy know you’re here.”

Mr. Lacy proved to be very gracious and accepting. As I stood up and thanked him for taking the time to meet with me, I apologized once again for being so horribly late.

“Can I see the directions you got from MapQuest?” he asked.

I handed him my printout.

Chuckling, he said, “Well, here’s the problem. We’re S 3003 W Loop, but the address you put in is N 3003 W Loop.”

All I can say is I’m glad it wasn’t a Yellow Cab position I had applied for. Still, I seriously doubted I’d be offered the position considering I was such a numbskull on passing the mental test with typing in the wrong address. The position I applied for requires accuracy with processing information, and yet I botched a simple rule of always making sure to double check. No wonder why Map Quest couldn’t figure out where I needed to be.

When Mr. Lacy did call and offered me the position after reviewing the results of a personality and temperament test I’d taken the previous morning, I just about gelled into my car seat. Come Monday, I’ll begin a new adventure in a career that will be similar to the work I did as a Medicaid eligibility specialist with the state of Florida many years ago.

Moving to Houston from Maine has been like moving from the trunk of the car to the engine. It’s a city with a lot of rev. As I sat on the Woodhead Bridge over Highway 59 later that evening, watching streamers of red shoot out from underneath me, I felt grateful that after several applications and interviews, I finally had a job. Taking in the sun setting on an orange creamsical sky, I thought, I'm going to like it here just fine.

By S. L. Cunningham

Village Soup Citizen, 07/19/2006:24