Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Officially, my job is to inspect hospital radiology departments. That’s what I got interviewed for. In all fairness, they did tell me that I would also go out on emergency field calls. Little did I suspect that I would find myself paying visits to the city garbage dump on a regular basis, Geiger counter in hand.

The city dump? Huh?

Well, what happens is that people go to the hospital, where they get injected by one of my former co-workers with a radioactive drug (radiopharmaceutical) for their scan, and when they go home, they don’t follow the instructions of what to do with their trash. The city picks up their garbage the next day, and when that trash truck arrives at the city dump, it passes through—and sets off—the radiation detectors.

Radiation detectors at the city dump?

That’s right, boys and girls: from California to Maine, trash trucks in this country (and others) drive through a gigantic, sensitive radiation detector when they drive in the front gate.

So the city called me, Friday.

“Hey, Tom. One of our trucks set off the alarm. Can you come check it out?”

“I’ll be there in an hour.”

When I go out on a call like this, I am not expected to show up in a suit and tie—the uniform we wear when inspecting hospitals. Tennis shoes and a short-sleeved shirt are de rigueur. Hey, it’s hot out there.

So I drive out there, and whip out my $25,000 device (I’m not telling you what it is, or where you can buy one. Actually, you can’t buy one. If you tried to buy one without a permit, stern men in dark business suits and even darker sunglasses would show up, asking your neighbors questions about you.). I start walking around this radioactive garbage truck, and I’m waving it at all of the usual places where radioactive trash would be hidden inside the vehicle.


Hm…I don’t want to release this truck, and have it come back to bite me. What’s probably going on is the patient who went home got injected with some Technetium 99m-based radiopharmaceutical, and with Technetium’s 6 hour half-life, it decayed down to background before I got there.

But, what if I’m wrong? What if I’m not putting in enough effort to find whatever’s inside this truck? So I detached the probe from the body of the device, and started poking and prodding parts of the garbage truck that I normally ignore. I took that probe, and started vigorously inserting it into all kinds of obscene nooks and crannies. From a distance, I looked like a desperate porno star with a fetish for big trucks.

I discovered something fascinating. Something I had never thought about, before: along with all of the solid waste that goes inside garbage trucks, there is a fair amount of liquid waste. A large Coca Cola from last week’s visit to McDonalds. The half-empty jug of milk. The Coors from last night’s party. You know how at the Jack Daniel distillery they filter the raw whiskey through a gigantic barrel filled with charcoaled oak, and collect it at the bottom? Well, this liquid waste has been filtered down through old pizza, half-eaten In N’ Out double doubles, and baby Jesus’ used diapers. And it’s all sloshing around at the bottom of that garbage truck.

Well, boys and girls, my $25,000 government-issued radiation device—whose name I will not tell you—found the latch that releases all of that lovely, fermented liquid via the trap door at the bottom of that garbage truck.

I heard and unfamiliar “click”.

Then the trap door flew open.

Remember when George Clooney and John Turturo stared in awe at the flash flood that was bearing down on them at the end of “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”?

Well, that was me. My jaw dropped, and I stared, immobile, while a wall of pickled trash juice came right at me.

Self-preservation instincts took over, and I jumped away in a rather impressive flying ninja leap of death. I believe that I screamed, “Blegthuperwhoa!” at the top of my lungs while my body flew backwards.

I almost made it.

Sure, 98% of that liquid landed harmlessly in the soft dirt, in front of me. But that other 2%.

Oh, that 2%...

From the waist down, I looked and smelled like a homeless guy had vomited on me.

Did I mention that I took the train to work, that day? (I keep the Celica in the garage at work, and only use it for hospital inspections, and field calls). People on the train kept sniffing the air, and glancing around. I just sat there, my nose buried in a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When I got home, the Basset Hound was thrilled. She ran up to me, tail wagging a hundred miles an hour, and couldn’t stop circling and sniffing me. She said, “Wow, you smell great! Where have you been?”

Monday, July 16, 2012


Caveat: You should always be wary of any book or magazine with an exclamation mark in the title.

Ah...Tufted Puffins!  I have dreamt of  doing a pelagic trip to the Farallon Islands for close to 20 years.  First, I wanted to see the Great White Sharks.

Didn't see any.
So you get on a boat, and sail under the Golden Gate Bridge.
This gives you an idea of just how huge the bridge is.

Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy San Francisco morning

I was hoping that there would be Common Murres on this trip.  I saw one.
Then I saw two (the one on the right is not a Marbled Murrelet: it's a baby Common Murre).
Then there were more...

Then there were hundreds...

Then there were 170,000 of them.

Yes, these are all Common Murres who have laid their eggs on the bare cliff, and are sitting
shoulder-to-shoulder; the only way to keep Western Gulls from stealing their eggs.
Their eggs are pear-shaped, to keep from rolling off the cliff.

Western Gull
Larus occidentalis
They eat anything from McDonald's french fries to baby sea birds.
Gulls cannot drink sea water. 
Despite the name "sea gull" they have to be within one day's flight of fresh drinking water.

Then there was a Black-footed Albatross.
His wing span is 7 feet, compared to the Western Gull's, just under 5 feet.
Albatrosses use their nasal glands as a pre-kidney, enabling them to drink sea water.
...and a Right Whale Dolphin (they look like mini Right Whales)
You know, if you've seen one Blue Whale, you've seen 'em all.
Look at how small those Commmon Murres are, compared to this Humpbacked Whale
The Humback fluked, and down she went...
The Laysan Albatross wasn't nearly as cooperative as the Black-footed Albatross.
We circled back for one last attempt at finding the Northern Gannet.
No such Luck.

Oh my god, the whole island smells like bird poop.
The closer we got, the more intense the stench of guano was.
It was like being held hostage in a pet shop.

But I did see Tufted Puffins.  They were a life bird!
On the way back to Sausalito's harbor, a windsurfer rode our wake.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

I love you, Wes Anderson

I'm straight, I'm heterosexual, I only like women, I'm married and have 2 kids, but I want to marry Wes Anderson. 
That's how much I love his movies.
All of his movies have the same signature style, but the plot of each film is different.
Moonrise Kingdom was everything I expected it to be.

I'm not going to ruin the move for you by giving away details, other than to say that it's about a 12 year old Khaki Scout who is in love with the 12 year old daughter of 2 lawyers.
The Khaki Scouts are a send-up of the Boy Scouts, in the same manner that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (my favorite movie) was a loving send-up of Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso.
Go see Moonrise Kingdom while it's still playing in the movie theaters.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Don't Ask and Don't Tell Me There's Gay Guys in the MIlitary

I have been really lucky: The VA Hospital keeps asking me to go and work there on Mondays.  Money has been tight: my wife got her credential as a math teacher, and she can't find a full-time, permanent job. 
As a math teacher.
I thought that no matter how things get, there's always money--and a need-for math teachers.
I guess not.
Besides the extra money, there's another benefit: I love scanning these old guys.
They're great.
One old guy today was an MP under McArthur.  Said the following: "It was so cold at Chosun (Reservoir) that some of our guys froze to death.  They didn't get shot, they just died from the cold."
And I thought that blizzard in February of 1987 that froze Budapest was bad.  Ambulances couldn't respond to 911 calls. It was -27 Celsius when we walked my girlfriend home, across the Danube.
Another old guy today--a Vietnam vet who spent the summer of 68 dodging all of the AK47 rounds that Charlie threw at him--struck me as being different.
You know, different.
I didn't ask, but he told.
He said, "Oh my friend in the waiting room.  We've been living together for thirty years."
And I'm thinking, Oh, that guy with a gray beard and round glasses? I thought he was your son.
So, here's the problem:
     I get about one gay patient a week, and all of these guys were in the US Army or the Marine Corps during a period when it was illegal.  It was a crime! We shall have no tutti-fruttis in our United States Army, or mamsy pansies in our Beloved Corps.
Except for the fact that they served their full term of service, took a bullet, got medals and received honorable discharges.
In Conduct Unbecoming Randy Shilts explains what happened: we had the draft, and we needed bodies.  Straight guys who didn't want to get their ass shot off in Vietnam would lie, and claim to be homosexual, and the recruiters would say, "Shut up, you're in the army, now."
That's fine, but they also did that with real-life homosexuals who had the gaydar cross-section of a B-52.  They would sashay into the recruiting office i.e. draft board, do their best Marilyn Monroe imitation, and 48 hours later find some scary DI screaming at them to "Get off my bus, and stand in platoon formation!"
So when there's a war going, and we have the draft, there's no such thing as a tutti-frutti.  They just don't exist.  Ask anybody serving on the draft board.  But when the volunteer Army existed, now we could become selective.
The most disturbing chapter in Conduct Unbecoming is the story of a gay guy who got drafted during the Vietnam War.  He showed up, told them he was gay, they said, "No, you're not."  He saw combat in Vietnam, then served for many more years.  He realized that he actually liked the Army, and repeatedly re-enlisted, while keeping his personal life--well, um--personal.
Then one day he pissed off the wrong colonel, and suddenly, the U.S. Army realized that there was a homosexual in their midst. Shocking! Scandalous.
The dude had 17 years of service i.e. was 3 years shy of getting his 20, and they kicked him out for the very thing he had admitted when they drafted him.
As the Iraq War dragged on, along with Afghanistan, expediency (the need for men willing to put themselves in harm's way) Don't Ask Don't Tell died an ugly, gurgling, raspy death.
So, now that Obama got rid of Don't Ask Don't Tell, what's the bottom line?
There is no bottom line.
There have always been gays in the U.S. military, and during those crises when we needed every able-bodied man we just closed our eyes and pretended they didn't exist.  All we're doing is being honest about it.