The Masterful Gene Fomin

This September my father enters into his 70th year living among us common folk and it has gotten me thinking about everything I know about Gene Fomin and the impression he has had on my life.  If you’ve known me well for any length of time you’ve probably heard me tell stories, give impressions and recreate to the best of my abilities some of scenes and mannerisms that are brush strokes on the portrait of a ridiculous and endearing fellow.

Gene Fomin has such capacity as a linear thinker as I’ve yet to witness up close in another person.  He can apply present circumstance and foresee a path to success well beyond the normal human horizon of planning.  That is to say, Gene can form a winning strategy to play out over a long time.  In chess, a good player is always thinking of the next move, not the current one.  Better players think three or four moves ahead.  My dad thinks ten moves ahead.  In cruder terms, when I first heard the expression “Russians don’t take a dump without a plan,” I knew immediately what they were talking about.  

My dad always has a very specific idea about how events are going to play out, and it’s served him well over the years, at least in some arenas.  In the world of chess, he was twice crowned the Seattle Chess Club Champion (a plaque he still displays with pride) and was a highly ranked player on the national level, one time beating the reigning champion of the state of California.  More recently he’s been recognized as a Contract Bridge player, competing regularly at national tournaments and holding down his position in the 99.6 percentile of Master Points. In fact whenever he applies himself to a hobby, he has earned accolades and awards for his intelligence, foresight and mastery of strategy.

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And yet, I have seen this man walk directly through a closed screen door.  I’ve seen him attempting to extinguish an enormous juniper bush on fire with a sprinkler head, attached to a garden hose, instead of just the hose by itself. I’ve seen, at best, questionable fashion choices not on a few occasions, but on nearly every occasion I’ve ever seen him in public. I’ve listened to his unwavering insistence that the word Klingon is pronounced Klee-on. I’ve heard the cries of anger and disgust from my father after being outwitted time and time again by the family dog.  This is a man who showed up to an important job interview in 1995 dressed in a powder blue leisure suit.  This is a man who invests his money in crystals and is perpetually at a loss on how to “do internet.”     

I know what you’re thinking. It’s easy to pick apart the people whom we see up close the most.  It feels kind of childish, and indeed as a kid I used to do it all the time with my dad.  Despite the fact that he acted for large swaths of time as a single parent, I never gave him any credit as anything more than the most unhip dad a kid could have drawn from the dad-lottery.  He didn’t have a cool job.  He was an outdated dresser.  He listened to terrible music.  Even by teenager standards my dad was lame, and that is how I thought of him for years until a high-school band concert in 10th grade.

While our band was waiting in the wings for another band to finish, a bandmate sidled up next to me and asked if that was my father in the audience, pointing to a man sitting dead center in the audience, head all the way back, snoring audibly enough to challenge the wind section of the band now struggling to get through their performance of the theme song to 1989’s Batman.  Needless to say, I was mortified. Until I looked back at the same bandmate and realized he was laughing, along with some others who had caught on. “Your dad is rad.” I looked back at my dad, who had now been prodded awake by some angry parents for not paying respectful attention to their budding artists. It was then I saw my dad for who he really was: the kind of character that people tell stories about.  

Whether by his own design or by sheer dumb luck, Gene Fomin is a man who leaves an impression.  I think now looking back at his many accomplishments the warmest memories of my dad are when his plans went awry.  There’s a certain cosmic comedy to it all.  The master tactician befuddled by a common plumbing fixture. The grand strategist not seeing the possible consequences of feeding the dog an entire expired birthday cake.  The curveballs of life that have been thrown his way and hit him square between the eyes in a blooper reel spanning decades.  

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When I began to see my dad in this light and total up the feats and foibles in equal measure, it’s kind of amazing what he’s managed to get done.  It’s a lot like a dog who you’ve come home to discover has figured out how to open the fridge and consume an entire wheel of cheese.  He has had no small amount of obstacles put in front of him but somehow managed to form and reform and reform his plans after every setback.  And his plan worked.  His sons, friends and companions can all attest to it in the form of a story or impression he has left along the way.  

The pieces on the board have come and gone and changed positions from time to time, but Gene Fomin has mastered the the long game.  I’m turning 37 this year and I can still catch moments of my dad “playing” when I talk to him.  I still hear new stories from people about my dad all the time.  That’s the kind of man he is – quite possibly the coolest dad ever to hypnotize himself. Very likely the most successful man to ever think it was a good idea to decorate an entire bedroom in a wolf motif.  I sincerely hope I get another 37 years of broken screen doors stacked up behind his house.

Love you, Dad.

 

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Blankets and Bleeding Hearts

During World War II, my grandmother and grandfather were prisoners inside a uniqueGerman labor camp for captured soldiers and staff of the Red Army.  My grandpa was one of the lucky ones, in that since he had a college degree (in engineering mind you), he was pulled aside and granted special work detail to treat injured soldiers as a medical doctor.  I guess the Germans figured someone with a degree could figure out how to extract bullets, treat diseases and perform ghastly surgeries with little to no medical supplies. More likely, they just didn’t care.

It was while working in the camp that my grandpa met his one-day wife, a nurse.  The two of them worked almost continually each day from sunrise until well into the night, treating patients and witnessing the horrific injuries and traumas of the war.  The prisoners at the camp were malnourished, weak and received very little in the way of clothing or blankets, often freezing to death overnight.  One particularly harsh night, the nurse in question, my grandmother, gave out her last blanket to another prisoner who was shivering cold and sick.  To my grandmother she was just another cold and miserable prisoner in need, just like the hundreds who had come before. But that night, my grandmother saved a life with one simple act of kindness and empathy.  And that prisoner did not forget it.

As it turns out, that prisoner worked for the American Red Cross in the years after the war. She had never forgotten about that blanket or the woman who gave it to her, and lord knows how, managed to find her living in post-war Germany, in a little town called Rosenheim.  She sent a letter, asking them if they would like to move to America.  For my grandparents, this was an escape.  A way to put the horrors of the war behind them and give their new son, Eugene, the opportunities they never had living under one authoritarian leader after another.  The ink on their letter accepting the offer was hardly dry before it was shoved into an envelope and sent off.

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They immigrated in 1950, and soon after took residence in Rock Island, Illinois. Some years later they had a second son, Andrew, and moved to Washington State. They rarely if ever talked about the inhumanity they lived through.  They never sought any recognition for the lives they saved. They simply went about their business raising a family, working for local government and quietly supporting liberal and progressive causes for the rest of their lives.  They gave back to their community and they instilled one very important value to my father, who passed it on to me: everyone deserves freedom.  Freedom from fear. Freedom and the opportunity to live your life and make it better for the next generation.

And not everyone has freedom. And that’s a problem.  

I’m writing this as a sort of reflection of my own ideals.  I started out writing about how I think a liberal minded or conservative viewpoint is formed.  But as I delved into why families seem to impart their ideologies onto their children and how opinions coalesce over time I realized I was largely talking out of my ass.  The truth is I’m not oblivious to other viewpoints – I just think the people that hold them don’t have a story like the one above that is close to their heart.  The best thing I can do as someone who believes that fundamentally everyone deserves freedom is tell the story and hope that it gets passed on.

If I grew up in a different family, in a different part of the country with a different set of friends and experiences, I might balk at the notion of liberalism.  But conservatism I think boils down to a kind of pessimism masked as realism:  The system is bloated and corrupt.  People take advantage and abuse the system.  Poor people won’t do anything to help themselves. You could easily just merge those three statements into smart people are corrupt and poor people are lazy.  Sound familiar? It’s the veiled belief that some people are better than others.  And that easily gets twisted into the notion that some people are inherently more deserving than others, by choice or design, whether said out loud or baked into your brain with blind prejudices from infancy. More often than not it’s seen as a choice, because this is America, land of the free and home to equal opportunity.

But being liberal means you are also pessimistic. America isn’t free. Everything is not Bud-Lite and roses. America only aspires to be free. And that I think is a line in the sand.  As a liberal, you may cry wolf at both real and perceived threats to your rights and those of others at the drop of a hat.  But essentially, you believe in a brand of optimism.  You believe everyone deserves to be on an equal playing field, and that when given that chance, they can do great things. You believe that no one is inherently more deserving than anyone else, and no one chooses to be poor or imprisoned.  You believe in the rights of others to live how they want to live, because everyone deserves freedom.  And it’s everyone’s job to make sure we have it.

That’s what a bleeding heart is. It doesn’t mean you don’t believe in abusers, or criminals, or in justice for all. A bleeding heart wants to remove the obstacles put up in front of people in their pursuit of liberty. It means you think everyone deserves a chance. It means you try to empathize and to understand.  It means you go from thinking smart people are corrupt and poor people are lazy to seeing them as just another person that needs a blanket on a cold night.

Intimidation factor

I want to like football. I really do. I just wish more sports teams made hats out of what their home state is known for, just like the Green Bay Packer Cheeseheads. It makes a lot of sense since their coming from Wisconsin, the Dairy State.  I think the other teams could all come up with something pretty good if they tried. For example I’d really like to see some Dallas Cowboys fans with giant foam lethal-injection needles on their heads.

Journey to the Infinite Part 4

At or around hour eleven of our journey I got a rough sort of feeling.  I’m not sure if it was the liquid heart-squeezers (5-Hour energy drinks are a helluva drug) keeping me awake or the fact that I had consumed nothing but jerky for half a day, but either way, my body was in the middle of a labor dispute. It seemed the quality-control department in the basement was up in arms about what management upstairs had been green-lighting for consumption. I phoned Nicole that we needed to stop for some “real” food.

By “real” I mean FDA-sanctioned non-toxic edible food-like substance commonly available to consumers at over 35,000 locations worldwide. I’m speaking of course of one of the few institutions available during the witching hour for the desperate travelers of the interstate, McDonalds.  I pulled the Beast into the drive-thru after checking the clearance signs and stared at the menu with half-open bloodshot eyes, reviewing the offerings as if it was my first time at a McDonalds restaurant. Big Mac? The fuck is that? Oh BIG mac.  Wait do they even sell Big Macs at this hour? The fuck time is it anyway? The  clock on the dash read 5:37AM. That can’t be right. Wait. My phone. my phone has a clock. Fuck’s my phone? Maybe I should call it. Call it with what? I know. I’ll call Nicole and tell her to call it.  I went on in my delirium without realizing that the intercom had started making noises.  Human talking noises.

I put my own inner monologue on mute for a moment, startling myself with a louder-than-necessary “WHAT?”

“WELCOME TO MCDONALDS. CAN I TAKE YOUR ORDER?” she replied, matching my accidental intensity.

My mind stalled; I had not come to this drive-thru prepared for questions.  I looked at the intercom for a few seconds blankly, like you might look at someone’s mouth in anticipation of a punchline when you just don’t get the joke. She followed-up with a “Sir?”as I blurted out “BIG MAC,” then a more composed “Big mac. One big mac. If you are selling Big Macs I would like to purchase one Big Mac from you.” 

“The meal or the sandwich?” replied the intercom.  

Now let me reiterate: at this point I’ve been awake for more than 24 hours, 11 of which have been staring into the animated ass of a Prius on our way across half the country. You could have asked me my name and I might have easily replied “Orange.”

And so this simple question about my order became the most beguiling metaphysical question to plague mankind since the heydays of the Acropolis. I could hear myself trying to come to terms with the what she was really asking: The meal or the sandwich? Isn’t the sandwich already a meal?  Or the meal a sandwich? If I say yes to sandwich do I not get a meal? For our purposes let us imagine the Big Mac as existing in a quantum mechanical superposition between two states that were equally true until eaten by the consumer. I was caught up in the kind of profound intellectual quandary usually reserved for teenagers after a massive bong hit.

“Sir?”

“Yes.” I said, with an increasing assertion.”Both.”

“Huh?”

I clarified at some length my desire for at least one Big Mac without onions, one large order of french fries and one large orange drink, all of which would comprise the  hypothetical “meal” I wished to order for purchase from the restaurant in exchange for currency of a predetermined amount agreed upon by both parties involved in the transaction.  I’m not sure exactly how long it took me to hash all of that out with her, but eventually she asked me to pull forward to the last window. Sidenote: why do they even have the first window anymore? They never use it anymore. It’s like a kid’s room room after s/he goes away to college.  They should just turn it into a craft room with a daybed.

As I reached the second window I saw an arm shoot out haphazardly with a hand preemptively opened to collect payment for the goods about to be received.  I drew up parallel to the hand and threw it in park, looking down from on high at the young woman.  The look on her face was a cocktail of I’m tired, a jigger of fuck this shit and a dash of this is the last time I cover for Brenda. She repeated the total, hand still outstretched as I fumbled around for my wallet while managing a weak, unreturned smile. After nearly handing her the whole thing I plucked out a card and strained to reach down to her.  She snatched it out of my hand and withdrew back behind the closing automatic window.  Not 10 seconds later she returned with card.  “This is a bus pass, sir.”

“Oh did it not go through?” I responded.  Then, slowly catching up “Oh right. Ha ha. Sorry. Uh ..here.” I traded with her using a better-looking piece of plastic.  “Here you go.” She examined it quickly before following the trajectory of her own deep eye-roll back inside, giving me a moment to think.  Wait. Did I order a meal or a sandwich? Did I ask for no onions? If she asks me about condiments I am so fucked. A minute later she returned with a receipt, the card and a brown bag, wordless as she reached up for the hand-off.

“No onions, right?” I asked. 

She just looked ahead, or maybe through me, still holding the bag in the air with a thousand-yard drive-thru stare.  Was she asserting through her silence that the order had been fulfilled as requested?  I just stared back, looking for some expression of affirmation.  It was quite a scene. The two of us, frozen in motion with eyes locked, the gentle gestations of the Beast rumbling against the chirps of newly awoken birds greeting a new day. I don’t know how long we were caught there like that.

She finally doubled down on the silence with an eye-widened, eyebrow-raised jut of the head in my direction as if to ask well? I repeated “No onions?” To which she finally responded in a quit your bullshit tone “They all made the same way.” She jostled the bag in her hand, beckoning me to grab it and get gone. 

I hesitated, slowly reaching for the bag with a puzzled look on my face. They all made the same way? They’re all made without onions? They’re all made with onions and I have no control over onion deployment, sir? Before my hand even reached the bag she repeated with more insistence, “THEY..ALL..MADE..THE SAME ..WAY.”  I took the paper bag, receipt and card back reluctantly as she recoiled back into the restaurant and the service window snapped shut.

I shrank back into the cab of the truck, bag in hand.  I opened it up.  Inside were two breakfast burritos and a hash brown. After confirming that they were not in fact two burrito-shaped Big Macs, I closed the bag and laid it on the passenger seat next to me. Turning back to the sunrise straight ahead I sat idling in place for a moment, hands on the wheel, trying to make sense of it all. But there were no answers. Not anymore. Not for me. Not until this place was long behind me. 

Somewhere behind me a familiar car horn confirmed it was time to move on with my life.  I popped and rolled the Beast out of park and didn’t look back. The universe was all out of Big Macs and I needed to accept it. Daylight was burning along my pilgrim trail to salvation.  I ate the fucking breakfast burritos. Angrily. They all made the same way.

Lost at Sea

When you look at one up close, you see unimaginable details in the iris.  It’s a raw, living terrain of light and color through which another soul looks out from behind a veil of nerves and blood, brewing beneath like magma under the mantle.  But these eyes, her eyes, burned as a tumultuous blue depth, filled with all of the fury of Neptunian worlds; the rippling surface of the sea painted into a quiet peace from afar. With careful attention my mind wanders over this wondrous ring of infinitesimal brushstrokes caught in contrast between brilliant white and an abyssal core from which she lurks, down in the deep.  I feel myself circling, swaying; drifting through the rise and fall of endless crests and whitecaps, wordless, and impossibly lost.  I have to turn away and focus my eyes on something far away just to redraw myself back into the chair across from her and not tumble out. Maybe one day I’ll know her eyes well enough not to flounder. Maybe I’ll have charted the ebb and flow of hues so well that I can navigate them without feeling uneasy.  But for now every glimpse is an odyssey.  That’s why I look at her the way I do, locking myself away in incomprehension, staring out a window; a portrait facing a painting.

Canadians Abroad

I left the country for my honeymoon only a few days after the 2016 presidential election.  My friend Matt sent in a congrats and fairwell:

Matt: Hey, congrats again and have a safe flight!

Nick: Thanks man! Feels good to get out of this fucking country.

Matt: Stay safe over there, the less said the better.

Nick: We’re Canadias. Not sure what you mean, eh?

Matt: …are you really?

Nick: Sure, eh?

Matt:

fry

Nick: He looks like he had one too many maple syrup donut-holes at Tim Hortons, eh? Hockey canadian bacon Labatts Molson mounties super polite socialism, eh?

Matt: Keep repeating that. Memorize it. Don’t stray from it.

Nick: Will do, you yankee hoser.

My tenure as a Sex-Ed Teacher

So one night while I was working as a Summer RA for a youth camp comprised of about 300 middle-school aged girls and boys, I get this knock on my door. I open it to find my friend Ben with an exasperated look on his face. “Some kids are having sex. All the campers are talking about it. We gotta find them!” My mouth is about to drop when he sprints away, hellbent on catching the offenders in the act.

I throw on some shoes and rush after him. We spend a good 30 minutes wandering outside and in, ears to every suspect dorm room door. Nothing. I wander into one of the corner lounges and overhear a couple of the campers talking about the incident: “Man, it was beautiful. I mean they were really going at it. I think I know who she is too.” I surprised them and proceeded to put the kibosh on their hormone-addled revelry by sending them to their rooms.

By then Ben had gone off on his own investigation, and I wandered the hallways for a bit longer with my imaginary sherlock hat and pipe in tow, trying to pick up on the slightest perceived sounds of pre-pubescent snogging. Finding nothing, I returned to the main desk of the dorm, where the other RAs had gathered to make sense of the rumor. Or so I thought. As I approached they all looked up at me, including my friend Ben who took a few steps forward. I stopped dead in my tracks as he looked at me with a profound gravity. “Nick. You couldn’t have shut the curtains?”

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The words just hung in the air for a minute somewhere between the two of us, until my eyes caught the sight of my then girlfriend through the window, walking back to her dorm after a short visit with me, moments before Ben knocked on my door. It was then I realized my room’s over-sized window looks out onto a sweeping vista of beautiful Bellingham Bay and more importantly, the entire basketball court only 20 feet below where at least a third of the youth campers had gathered to be witness to the splendor of adult intimacy.

To this day I have no idea how many kids saw us. I was incredibly lucky in that apparently none of the kids connected the dots that it was one of their counselors. In fact several of the silverback male-grubs claimed the act as their own doing (which I did not discourage) and I made it the rest of the summer with only myself and the other RAs knowing the real identities of the phantom fornicators.

I’m only telling the story now as a cautionary tale to you young RAs out there. So be safe. Be smart. Close your curtains if you live on the 2nd floor of Nash Hall. You could be disrupting the otherwise natural process of kids discovering their sexuality at their own pace and accelerating them into feelings they do not have the capacities to deal with as a developing juvenile. Still. I bet a lot of kids had good dreams that night.

Gun control

The thing I don’t like about guns is that for them to be useful, you have to use bullets. You have to put in the extra effort to load the gun, which uses up valuable seconds and broadcasts your intentions in a crisis situation. This is why when confronted by danger, I just immediately hurl myself head-first through the air towards my assailant, thereby becoming both the gun and the bullet in one deadly package.