The other day, within a span of five minutes, I witnessed two complete strangers act in a manner that suggested they were very angry. I was in the passenger seat of my dad’s car when he nosed out onto a rural highway in order to make a left turn. It was a tricky turn because of a forest obstructing the view of traffic on the little highway, so “nosing out” is really your only option. Trouble is, by the time your nose is out, you are committed. A car was approaching at a safe distance, and pops made the turn. The other driver, upon seeing the “nose out,” sped up rather than slow down, blasting his horn as he swerved around us.
My cousin Brad was following us to our next destination. We passed through a green light at an intersection. Brad drove through the yellow light behind us. A man waiting at the red light shot Brad the bird. The guy was just sitting there. He had zero skin in the game. No animals were injured in the making of. We stopped for gas and Brad asked, “Why are people so angry?”
Why are people so angry?
There are lots of studies and theories floating around as to the reasons people have lost their damn minds:
-Courtesy of reality TV, the haves flaunt their private islands, gold toilet seats and private jets in the living rooms of the have-nots.
-Thanks to mobile devices and Wi-Fi we have instant access to every catastrophe on the globe in real time.
-Stupid people get ahead.
-Nice people get cancer.
-The Green Bay Packers do not win every Super Bowl.
Some people believe we’re out of control because our water is fluoridated, our food is poisoned and we listen to hip-hop. Others say it’s because we’re godless or religious, pre-menstrual or post-menopausal, low T or over-caffeinated. You know what I think? It’s not in our water, ears, body chemistry or floating in the sky. It’s linguistic.
I’d like to find the person who decided we must be passionate about everything and punch him in the snout. You can’t write a resume, business letter, commencement speech or recipe without telling the world you’re passionate about whatever it is you’re writing, selling, preaching and eating at any given moment.
Passionate, adjective. Showing or caused by strong feelings or a strong belief. Synonyms: intense, vehement, heated, emotional, heartfelt, excited, adrenalized, fervid, frenzied, fiery, consuming, violent.
Believe it or not there is such a thing as a “passionate chef,” a cook who is adrenalized by mollusks, while others get emotional over kale. I saw a listing for a house in Wauwatosa the other day, a “passionate ranch.” I typed “passionate about” into the Google search bar and the first things that cropped up were passionate about work, life, baking and learning. In that order.
Forget for a moment that the most searched “passionate about” term on Google is “passionate about work.” Work! No wonder we’re grumpy. Next up, passionate about life. What does that even mean–you really really want to live? Most people do, which is why they flounder and thrash when they fall into a lake and can’t swim. I could even buy that a person lives life passionately—implying to me, at least, that they regularly touch other humans, their eyes flash when they’re angry v. those of a mannequin and they can dance the tango.
What word did we use to describe our enthusiasm before we all got so damned passionate? I’d say “love,” but you didn’t hear a lot of people saying they loved math, the study of gum disease or animal husbandry, and yet today people are passionate about all three.
Being a writer has always been my goal. I studied writing in school. I work hard at my craft. When I was in college, I didn’t go around telling people I was passionate about journalism. I also didn’t say I loved poetry, because some of it is disturbing, incredibly morbid and painful. You don’t love a kidney transplant, yet the American Kidney Fund has “over 5,100 passionate patients, friends, loved ones and kidney care professionals” in its network. I envision them all sweaty, rolling around on the floor of the clinic, kidneys in a cooler by the door waiting for the passion to subside.
A couple of months ago I very much wanted a gig writing a screenplay adaptation of a memoir. I busted my butt writing the pitch, which enthusiastically put forth my ideas and vision for the project. The rejection email said they were going in another direction, but they thanked me for my passion. I felt like writing back, “What have you heard?” I hardly writhe or perspire at all when I’m writing.
Symphony conductors may be passionate—waving their arms and leaping about. Painters and rockstars, too. “Passionate about art” seems reasonable to me while “passionate about tax returns” just seems wrong, and yet Brett Sellers has a YouTube video about his passion for accounting.
Dr. Lawrence Hurd is passionate about insects. Speaking of toenail fungus, there’s a Dr. Hecker who’s passionate about treating it non-surgically.
This morning I saw a blog about 5 Things You Should be Passionate About Now, none of which had anything to do with sex, love or people. It was about money management, cleaning your closets, drinking more water, how to ask for a raise and flossing.
If you’re a politician and you don’t follow the words, “I am passionate about” with one of the following: America, freedom, children, the flag, veterans or guns, the others will drink your milkshake.
I think all this passion has made people angry. You can’t go around all hopped up about kale and dental floss and not expect to freak out when someone tries to merge onto the freeway. When a person is passionate about shut-eye (there are blogs, supplements and discussion groups dedicated to passionate sleep), then she is bound to go postal when NBC cancels Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris.
People are angry on Facebook, in the grocery store, all over the news and even in churches, temples, banks, bars and other places of worship. Maybe if we really liked a nicely crafted Manhattan as opposed to being passionate about the cocktail (Passionate Bartender Wanted, Craigslist), we wouldn’t give so many fucks when people with whom we do not agree politically speak loudly about their beliefs in a locker room while we are naked and can neither run away nor asphyxiate them with a gym towel.
If we would reserve our passion for things that call for passion, such as sex, rock n’ roll and anything Italian, perhaps we’d be a less angry bunch, and when my pops tries to make a left turn onto Calhoun Road it won’t piss off a passionate buttwipe driving a maroon F-150 with Wisconsin plates and a “Keep honking I’m reloading” bumper sticker.
When I was six years old I was crazy about the Beatles. So much so, that my grandpa gave me a diamond ring and told me it was from Paul McCartney. I’m sure the ring came from Murphy’s Five and Dime (or a Cracker Jack box), but with all my little six-year-old heart, I believed that diamond was real and I would marry the cute Beatle as soon as I was allowed to leave the backyard without my mom.
That was probably the last time I believed in “diamonds,” both literal and figurative, and I am so grateful to my grandpa for that gift. I remember the instant I put the ring on my finger–the butterflies, giddiness and the feeling that I could just about fly. Grandpa didn’t tell me I was the prettiest or the sweetest. He told me Paul loved me because I was smart, I had a smile that lit up the room, and my heart was as big as the world. He said I was a princess.
To this day, when I think of princesses I think of charities, defusing landmines, feeding the hungry and giving solace and comfort to the sick. For a very long time the ring “from Paul McCartney” reminded me to do good, so on the occasion of my niece Cielo’s sixth birthday, I hope to bestow upon her the same kind of lasting gift as Grandpa gave to me only instead of a diamond ring, because frankly, you don’t need a mate to be a princess, I am giving Cielo a tiara to remind her that the job of a real princess is to be smart, generous, gracious, kind and loving. I so hope she believes the tiara is real, because in many regards, it is.
Feel free to borrow the following letter to create some magic for the little princess in your life.
We do not speak of it in public, but you are now old enough to know the truth about who you really are. Many, many years ago when dragons roamed the earth, your ancestors were queens and kings, princesses and princes.
They were beautiful people inside and out. They were kind to animals, they made sure everyone had plenty of food to eat, and they were the first ones to help whenever anyone needed helping.
Today, the princesses are very strong. When a big person falls down, the princess can help him up with even her tiny hand, because the love in her heart does the lifting. When you see someone helping an old person across the street, tenderly petting a dog, giving food to someone who is hungry, or sharing what she has with people who have less, you are probably looking at a princess.
Three hundred years ago your people chose to live in ordinary houses instead of castles. They decided not to wear long gowns, heavy jewels and crowns. Instead they look like everyone else so that they don’t stand out. They don’t brag or look down at anyone. They are kind.
The princesses are very smart. They work hard at school so that they can write their own happy ending—however they dream it should be. They read lots of books, make plenty drawings and paintings, some play music, others dance ballet, but they all have one thing in common—and it’s the biggest secret of the true princesses. Her smile is magical.
There is no light bulb or candle that can light up a room like a princess smile. It doesn’t come from a silly joke or a birthday present. Her smile comes from the brightest, lightest most radiant place in the universe—her heart.
Your heart is where your true royalty lies—where the castles and dragons still live, and where you can fly, sing and dance in the clouds, but you must lock it in your heart. Being a real princess might make other people feel less special, and one of your royal powers is making everyone feel good about themselves.
It is important to the family that you behave like a princess at all times. If an older person needs help, you will not hesitate to help her. If someone is very hungry and you have a sandwich, you will share. You will only treat animals with kindness, for the dragons that your ancestors grew up with treated the people with kindness (when they could as easily have eaten them all up). You will study hard. You will be good. And most of all, when you just can’t keep it a secret one more second, you will smile—and without a single word everyone will know that you are a real princess.
Happy birthday, Princess Cielo!
Lacking instrumentation other than a cell phone and a flashlight, and having nearly crashed into a lake, our aerial cinematography helicopter had landed in a farmer’s field at the end of last week’s blog. Farmer Fritz got the volunteer fire department to guide us to the airport, where we parked the chopper for the night, got into a rusty old Suburban, which I insisted upon driving, and headed to our motel where we’d catch a few hours sleep before a 4AM call time. The plan was to get up, mount the camera to the nose of the helicopter and be over the Apostle Islands in time to get sunrise footage.
En route to the motel, our pilot informed the cinematographer and myself that he was rather peckish, and might we consider stopping somewhere for food. I offered him the pie on a paper plate that Mrs. Farmer Fritz had sent us off with, but he required something more substantial, or as “luck” would have it, liquid.
We pulled up to a sleepy little tavern at 1AM—the only place left open in the town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. While they had stopped serving food, they were still serving alcohol, and that was apparently all the sustenance Captain Arg-More-Rum-For-Me-Mates required.
I went out to the truck and brought in the pie, which the cinematographer and I devoured with our bare hands while Jack Sparrow ordered six shots of tequila. As there were three of us, I assumed he meant for everyone to have two shots before closing time, and while I was just about to decline as I needed to be up in less than three hours, Captain Rumbottom slammed all six so fast his hands were a blur.
“What kind of pilot are you?” was all I could eke out, and he then proceeded to tell us exactly the type of pilot he was.
Of the many combat missions he had allegedly flown in ‘Nam, none were as dangerous, or “rewarding” as the many times he had flown around the tri-State area of Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Nearly every single time, some sort of equipment malfunction caused the helicopter he was piloting (I am guessing it was the same one we were getting back into in a couple of hours) to fail, and Yablonski was forced to auto-rotate (a method of reversing the rotation of the chopper blades in order to reduce the speed with which the aircraft smashes into the ground).
I’m sure there was apple pie on my chin and falling out of my mouth—my jaw was, after all, resting on a sticky Formica table top as Yablonski went on to say that in each case paramedics were summoned, as it was thought the pilot must surely be mortally injured.
The really remarkable thing was that each time he crashed the helicopter, instances numbering in the dozen range, the first responders were buxom women wearing tight jumpsuits unzipped to there, who, in order to save his life, administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an area well south of the standard mouth region, where such medical assistance is usually rendered. Oh lord.
It was at that time my spirit left my body and I hovered over the scene, noticing for the first time that our fellated flyboy was wearing a toupee. It was perfect. I paid the check and the cinematographer and I helped Leonard to the truck, as he was so drunk he could not walk. We had to be in the air in three hours.
At promptly 4AM I met the cameraman at the truck. At 4:10 I went to Yablonski’s room and knocked at his door, but there was no answer. I rapped louder, until finally kicking it as hard as I could.
“What?” came the grouchy reply.
“Uh, up and at ‘em, slugger.” Corny now, but at the time it was all I could come up with other than ‘get your f-ing ass out of bed you drunken sot or I will come in there and kill you and there won’t be any CPR in your future unless we can count beating you senseless with a tire iron as cardio pulmonary resuscitation.’
“Let’s just do this tomorrow,” he replied, and I swear I heard him pull a pillow over his head.
There was ground crew waiting for us later in the day, and a full on marching band all set for a parade scene that afternoon. There was no “tomorrow” on this job. I marched my ass to the office, which at 4:15AM was naturally empty. I rang a little silver bell on the counter to no avail. I went behind the counter, found a key to which the word “Master Key” was taped, and I stomped back to Yablonski’s room and let myself in. I glanced around for something with which to poke him, fearing should I get too close he’d mistake me for a paramedic and think I was there to…it doesn’t matter.
I ripped the pillow off his head, yanked the blankets away and screamed, “GET UP!”
Ten minutes later we were in the Suburban on our way to the airport. The cinematographer had the camera mounted to the nose of the aircraft in nothing flat. We fueled up the chopper and made it over the Apostles just in time to miss a spectacular sunrise.
Next stop on the Wisconsin Death Tour was to be Prairie du Chien, a gorgeous area of cliffs and valleys along the Mississippi River. En route we passed over a gentle hillside of honey blonde wheat, being traversed by a harras of stunning Andalusians, their white white mane flashing in the sun.
“Bank to the right!” I shouted into my headset. Yablonski promptly banked hard, and to the left. “Your other right,” I snarled, and he banked so hard to the right that my arm flew off its spot holding the towel under the motor, and oil splattered my face. By the time I wiped my eyes and could see again, the horses were about 5 miles behind us and had taken cover under a copse of oaks. “Go back!!!” I bellowed, and I swear we did a barrel roll in the Bell Jet Ranger. I grabbed the airsick bag and hurled.
The airsick bag was full, the bath towel was saturated, signaling we needed to add oil, and the horses were nowhere to be found. I vomited again once we were on the ground. Kneeling in the tall grass I looked up to see the Andalusians gallop past. They appeared to be laughing.
“You’ll want to empty that,” Yablonski said, motioning to the airsick bag clutched in my hand. “It’s the only one.”
I know we got some cool shots of the cliffs, hang-gliders, the river and other natural wonders because I have seen the footage, but I do not remember any of that. What I do remember is getting sick over and over because of the smell of the used airsick bag. And I vividly recall the thick fog we got lost in somewhere in the vicinity of the Prairie du Chien Municipal Airport. We literally could see nothing above or below us, and without a radio or functioning instruments we had no way to know our exact position relative to the airport, or the ground.
“We’ve got plenty fuel,” Yablonski informed us. “We’ll just hover here until the fog breaks. I think we’re practically on top of the airport.”
“They land private jets here,” I said, having done my research ahead of time. “Won’t we get crashed into?”
Yablonski’s shoulders went up and down as though he were laughing. “Sweetheart,” he condescended into his headset. “Jets fly at 30,000 feet. We’re hovering at about 1,500. Do the math.”
I did the math. “When they take off and land they must pass through every measurement between 30,000 and zero. We are in that zone!”
“You worry too much” were his last words before he decided he had had enough of being second-guessed and we were informed it was time to “punch through” and see what was below us. Before anyone could ask what “punch through” meant, we began a rapid descent that almost immediately resulted in the chopper jerking to stop, then bouncing up a few feet.
Until now the cinematographer had remained relatively stoic, which I later learned was simply him praying silently. “What the fuck?!” he yelled.
Down near about 40ft, where we were, the fog had thinned considerably, and I was able to see the power lines we had just bounced off of. I mouthed, “Power lines,” unable to make the sound come out, like in a very bad dream. The cameraman had no such trouble.
“Fucking power lines!!!!” he shouted, reaching over and hitting Yablonski in the face, at which time Yablonski yanked the cyclic stick and up we went, only to jolt to a stop. Yablonski fought with the cyclic to no avail. I looked out and saw one of our skids was hooked under a power line. I found my words.
After some maneuvering, Yablonski unhooked us and managed to put the helicopter on the ground at an abandoned gas station in the middle of nowhere. The cinematographer got on his cell and called a cab, telling them he didn’t care how much it cost, he needed a ride to Milwaukee—181 miles away.
“But we still have stuff to shoot,” I said weakly.
“Have a nice time,” he told me.
Yablonski stuck a forefinger into his mouth, and then held it in the air. “Fog’ll be lifting any minute,” he reported, based on this action. Like a zombie I climbed into the front of the aircraft where the cinematographer had been sitting, I put my headset on, and tried to figure out how the nose-mounted camera worked. By the time the fog lifted I felt relatively confident I could shoot the remaining footage, and we left the cameraman at the abandoned gas station, waiting for a cab. We fueled up at Prairie du Chien, and then headed to Milwaukee.
For all his faults, the one good thing about Leonard Yablonski was his absolute willingness to break the law in order to get me the coolest damn footage ever of downtown Milwaukee, including swooping between buildings only feet above the cars, buzzing boats in the Milwaukee River, and hovering right outside my friend Deb’s high-rise apartment on Prospect Avenue, over-looking Lake Michigan. Len got me so close I could tell Deb hadn’t flossed her teeth.
Len even delivered me to our wrap party. On Milwaukee’s Southside, where the best Mexican restaurants are, he put down in an empty lot across the street from Pepe’s taqueria, like I was a rockstar. I drank ten margaritas in a row and don’t remember anything until the next day when I called Yablonski to tell him I didn’t think we should have to pay the full amount since we missed sunrise over the Apostle Islands and lost our cinematographer half way into the shoot thanks to pilot error.
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you think is fair.” I sent him a check for half, and then tried to put the whole thing behind me. The cinematographer reported Yablonski to the FAA, but saw him at a trade show a few years later, working his “aerial photo pilot” booth under a different name.
“You’re Leonard Yablonski!” the cinematographer hissed. “Nope. I am not,” Yablonski replied. “I am Sven Yablon.”
The moral of the story is best conveyed by a slogan rejected by the Wisconsin Tourism Association, “Wisconsin. Come here once.” Oh, I almost forgot. You get what you pay for.
Seconds in lore are splendid. We’ve heard that love is better the second time around, factory seconds are almost as good as factory firsts and everyone deserves a second chance, but a lot of heartache, anxiety and brushes with death have been the result of giving people a second thwack at the piñata.
Many years ago I shot TV commercials for the Wisconsin Tourism Association. In spite of the fact there was a tiny budget, the art director from the ad agency insisted we get aerial footage. We couldn’t afford a “real” pilot and photo plane, so I found a fellow in Chicago who claimed to have flown numerous combat missions in ‘Nam,’ who owned a small helicopter, and was willing to work for about a tenth of what the other guys charged. What could go wrong?
After a day of shooting on the ground, I went to an airstrip in Bariboo, Wisconsin to meet Captain Yablonski, who was wearing what appeared to be a pilot’s Halloween costume, complete with little plastic wings like they give children on airplanes when they meet a real pilot. Captain’s hat tipped rakishly over the requisite “aviator” shades, a lit cigarette dangled from his lips as he filled the 1967 Bell Jet Ranger with jet fuel. Standing in front of a brightly painted sign that said NO SMOKING FLAMMABLE, Cap’n Yablonski assured me jet fuel was not, in fact, flammable. He didn’t look like a reliable authority, but I’m from Wisconsin where we are taught not to judge a book by its’ cover.
I would have been wise to run away at that point. Instead I was handed a filthy bath towel and told I must hold it under the motor while we were in the air, and alert the captain when it became so saturated that oil ran down my arm. (The motor is on the roof of the aircraft, which is not really what that flimsy piece of shit plexi bubble held together with baling wire and duct tape ought to have been called.) Oil dripping off my elbow was a sign it was time to “put down” and add oil. And still I climbed into the contraption, where I discovered more than a dozen filthy bath towels stacked neatly on the floor, with one airsick bag on top. (In fairness to me, I wasn’t the only imbecile flying way up high in the sky with a pilot whose wings read, “Future pilot of America.” The cinematographer got into the aircraft as well, although he was unaware of the severity of the oil leak as indicated by the tall stack of filthy towels.)
The art director who very much had wanted to ride in the helicopter with the cool kids suddenly decided he had work at the office, and ran away screaming, “I have children!” As for Yablonski, it is likely that if he had had offspring, they were killed in a helicopter or toaster accident. He was not qualified to operate either piece of equipment.
There was no radio onboard. “What for?” Yablonski said when I inquired about the standard communication device on a machine that flies from place to place in midair. “I have a cell phone,” he assured us. “Just as good.”
I’m no aviation expert. “Ok,” I said as the cameraman interrupted. “Is there a chute onboard?” he asked. I laughed nervously, now that we had all the bad stuff out of the way.
The plan was to fly about 385 miles north, grabbing some pretty late afternoon shots over the Wisconsin Dells en route to the Apostle Islands where we ‘d pick up stunning sunrise footage over Lake Superior. With its deep, cold waters and isles of dense Blue Spruce, it promised to be a visual symphony in glorious technicolor.
“How long will it take us to get to Hayward (where we planned to put down for the night)?” I asked.
“Damned if I know,” the captain said, lighting a cigarette and flying the helicopter with one hand and a knee.
“Pardon, “ I squawked into my headset. “Didn’t you file a flight plan?”
“What for? We pretty much follow the highway north to Duluth then go right.”
“And you don’t know how long it will take?”
“I’m banking on about two and a half hours,” he replied, half-certainly.
Mental calculations told me we’d have to whiz through the atmosphere at over 150 miles per hour to make it before dark, which was the only plan Yabolonski had, and which I later learned was likely the result of the aircraft’s inadequate lighting and instrumentation. 150mph seemed kind of fast, but again, I’m not an aviator. Sadly, neither was Leonard Yablonski.
The top speed of a Bell Jet Ranger that’s new and not held together with chewing gum is 138 mph. I’d ridden a bicycle downhill faster than our Bell Ranger flew. It grew dark, and I couldn’t help but notice there were no lights on the aircraft but for one on the nose, which pointed straight ahead—like a headlight, which seemed odd. It felt like more lights might be useful. Other than a tiny red light on our tail, we chugged through the night like a very loud invisible sewing machine.
After a few hours, I realized we were flying in circles, and I inquired about this alarming new phenomenon.
“Can’t find the airport,” El Capitan informed us. “We’re gonna have to put down in a field and make some calls. We are running on fumes.” And with that we began a rather rapid descent. It was black as the ace of spades below us, with no actual lights on the aircraft, and all. “Farmer’s field,” Yablonski reported as if reading my mind. “Relax.”
We’d already been through two bath towels, so I wasn’t in the mood to relax. I glanced out the window and bit the tip of my tongue off. “Waaaaaaa!” I screamed. I saw the reflection of the chopper beneath us, getting bigger by the second. “WAWA! WAWA!!!!!”
“Shit,” said Yablonski. Vooomp vooomp vooomp vooomp vooomp went the blades overhead as we rapidly ascended. “There’s a lot of lakes down there.”
Twenty minutes later, in a cornfield where the cinematographer threatened to beat Yablonski to death with a tripod, a pick-up hurtled at us, barely coming to stop before a shotgun-wielding farmer jumped out, most probably expecting aliens. We explained the situation. He told us the guy who works at the airport turns out the lights and goes home at eleven, and would we like to come up to the house for some pie while we figured out what to do next.
Farmer’s wife wore a pink housecoat, pink slippers and had spongy pink rollers in her hair. She thought filming TV commercials was about the most glamorous thing imaginable even after I asked for some paper towels and lye with which to clean the motor oil off my arms. The volunteer fire department was called, and a convoy of fire trucks showed up about half an hour later. The plan was to fly over them as they guided us to the airstrip, which had indeed been shut down for the night. We really only needed one fire truck, but no one in those parts had seen a helicopter land in Fritz Kirschbaum’s field in the middle of the night before, and as comedy goes this was a downright rib-tickler. Mrs. Kirschbaum sent us off with some pie on a paper plate, covered over with foil, and all the way across the field, through the rows of corn, we could hear the volunteer firemen laughing at us.
A pilot friend of mine kept an old Suburban at the airstrip that we could use to get to the motel and back again in the morning. I snatched the keys from the ashtray and insisted on driving. Little did I know that at 12:45AM, our night was just beginning.
Stay tuned for Part II next week. If you enjoy the blog, tell your friends to subscribe. They’ll love you for it 😉