The Colonel’s Plan – Fighting Entropy, Stopping and Starting

May 2, 2018

Dear Daddy —

Entropy. Let’s talk about entropy.

The first definition is right up your alley. In physics, entropy is “a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.”

In colloquial speech, it’s “a lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.”

When I decided, last week, to talk to you about entropy, it was with a more hopeful frame of mind that’s lost to me now. Now I just feel beaten down.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, the total entropy of an isolated system never decreases over time.

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Election 2018 – Please Join Me

Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a political curmudgeon. I’m usually outspoken supporting underdog candidates—like Gary Johnson in the 2016 Presidential election. My underdog streak goes way back. I was a John Anderson supporter in 1980, three years before I could vote. That might give some of you the idea that I only support lost causes. Not this time. 

This Thursday, I voted in the mid-term election. (If you live where I do, you have three days of early voting opportunities left. Do it. It’s convenient.) I voted for, in alphabetical order, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians and Republicans. I voted for incumbents who have done a solid job, for mavericks who probably won’t win, but who deserve a showing for their valiant efforts, and for newcomers who stand a good chance, and who I think will accomplish great things in office. 

I voted for people, not politics. 

I’d like to ask you to do the same. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – Setting the Tables

April 25, 2018

Dear Daddy—

I cleaned the basement for about two hours last night—not that you’d really notice. It takes a long time to make a visible dent in rooms where so much storage has occurred. I worked on the room with the train tables. Remember the train tables? 

The train tables… Today.

It’s difficult to define rooms in the basement. There are nominally five. The cinderblock walls define four—two end rooms, about 24′ x 29′, and two long, middle rooms, each about 15′ x 44′. You added a darkroom early on. It’s not in the plans, but it’s about a 15′ x 6′ space with a laundry tub and the ability to double as a laundry room. 

The train tables are in one end of the long front room, under the dining room. Back around 1979 or 1980, Charles and I planned to start building an HO model railroad layout. We were each going to construct one 4′ x 8′ section of it. The book we had on scenery recommended an open-framed style platform on which to construct the plaster landscape. We had our design sketches ready, and I believe I came to you and asked if there was a stash of 2′ x 4’s not spoken for. (Trust me, as many mildewed 2′ x 4’s as I threw away last year, I’m sure there were, even in 1980.) 

You asked what we were up to, and then immediately grabbed a yellow legal pad and started designing 4′ x 8′ tables with storage shelves underneath them. I explained patiently—as patiently as my 14 or 15-year-old self could, which was probably not patiently at all—that that was not what the book said to do. 

Your relationship to books was the same as your relationship to the Internet. Your relationship to the Internet was the same as damn near every other person born before 1960’s relationship to the Internet—that is, you didn’t believe a word that appeared on it. I recall you saying more than once that you knew more about the subject at hand than the author of the book I was referencing. And yes, you said it once about a veterinary manual—by a veterinarian!. And no, you never attended a veterinary school, nor did you have any practical experience in the field beyond once contemplating removing a tumor off of Old Susie’s foot with a pocket knife and a match. Susie, here, refers to your mother’s hound dog, not my sister. I would never refer to my sister as “Old Susie.” I’m less sure that you would not have contemplated removing a tumor from my sister’s foot using a pocketknife. 

Suzie on Ma’s back porch, c 1973. Suzie was the mother of our dogs Benji and Lady. I believe Suzie lived until about 1985.

You dismissed Bill McLanahan’s knowledge of framing for model railroads, and further declared, “I’m not just thinking about model trains. I’m designing something sturdy that can be of use after the train fad is over.” I guess you didn’t realize that model trains are usually a lifelong hobby, even though you’d just bought a model train for your father for his 80th birthday. We still have that train. And it will be going on one of those tables. 

So you built the amazingly sturdy tables, and Charles and I took over that section of the basement for the next three years. I built a couple of buildings for my layout—one by hand out of found materials. I smashed it in anger after Charles got mad at me about something else one day and left me a note saying that, by the way, the building “stinks.” We filled the floor behind the tables with discarded Fudgsicle wrappers until Mother threatened to stop buying Fudgsicles. I believe, when tossing them back there, I would often sing the idiotic space hippie song from Star Trek about eating all the fruit and throwing away the rind. We built airplane models. I was working on a B29, like you flew in the War. 

And, eventually, I got over my anxiety of starting a project—because once you’ve started it, you have to work on it, and you might make a mistake. While you’re planning, it’s perfect—and began constructing a hillside out of plaster. I had that well underway when I was struck with graduation, complications of which led to my being institutionalized at the University of Maryland. 

As soon as I moved into my dorm room, you took over my bedroom to be your new corporate offices, and you took over the train room to be your conference room. Our hobby supplies were removed from the Very Sturdy Tables, including my plaster hillside, which you carried to the second floor and leaned up in a corner of my general purpose room. I think I finally threw it away. 

Your prophecy was self-fulfilling. The “train fad” ended because you ended it. I think that was your plan all along. The conference room lasted until the late 1980s. Your chalkboard is still on the wall, with diagrams for fighter planes and radar images—the last project you worked on for the Pentagon was how to fool the seeker heads on air to air missiles. 

After that, the conference room filled up with junk, like everything else. The space in the “L” formed by the two tables was impassable. The cubicle you had set up for interns to use wasn’t visible behind the towers of equipment. The equipment was moved out last Summer and Fall, leaving that end of the room largely clear. I think there’s still a big laser on the floor behind one of the tables. Christian cleared the tables of junk and began bringing over his collection of game consoles. The room was coming back to life as a hobby space again. 

And then we emptied Mother’s office so it could become her bedroom, and, well, all her boxes of files had to go somewhere. In a “Greater love hath no man,” move, Christian stacked them on his tables. So I spent two hours last night beginning to transfer the files into one of the eleven file cabinets you left behind, eight of which are now also in that front room of the basement. It will take many more hours, and I really need to focus on bathrooms until they’re finished and inspected. 

But we’re getting there. And, as God is my witness, there will be trains on those tables again. 

Love, Steven

The Colonel’s Plan – The Old Hunt Club

April 18th, 2018

Dear Daddy –

I still have a house, too. I’ve talked so much about yours, you might have forgotten that I don’t live in your house. I’m just there a lot. And it’s not your house anymore, in a legal sense, is it? Legally, it’s Mother’s. Spiritually, you gave up on it long ago, and I’m renewing it now. So I guess there are two houses in my life—our house, yours, Mother’s, the family’s and mine, and my house, mine and Renee’s, anyway.

My house is 148 years old this year. It was 126 when I bought it. You were our home inspector. You checked the foundation, the structure, the wiring, the plumbing. Ethan was three years old. Christian wasn’t born and wouldn’t be for three years. Renee and I weren’t intending to buy a house that day before Christmas Eve in 1995, but there it was. I was on my way to a meeting at the Elkridge Library (now just renovated and re-opened, then just four years old) and I decided to take the back way to get there. I passed this beautiful old house on a hill. Renee was working in real estate, so I called her and said I’d like to see it. She set up an appointment. We went by on the way to the grocery store to buy Christmas supplies. There was snow on the ground. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – Plumbing the House’s Guts

April 11th, 2018

Dear Daddy –

I resolved one bathroom ago that I was never going to use all the tile you bought. You had planned what are now called “vintage” bathrooms, in many of which the soap dishes, toothbrush holders, toilet paper dispensers and towel racks were permanently mounted with, and made of the same color porcelain as, all the other fixtures. The pink bathroom will go in as you planned it. It’s a pink bathroom. It can’t be anything but what it is.

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The Colonel’s Plan – “Do Not Hit or SET On”

April 4th, 2018

Dear Daddy – 

A year ago today, you came home from your last visit to the hospital. You came in an ambulance, because you were too weak to even get in and out of a car. You had a foley catheter, because you couldn’t tend to your own needs in that area any longer. Gilchrist Hospice Services had brought you a hospital bed and a portable toilet. You refused to use that. You also refused to use a wheelchair, even though your doctor had told you it was shortening your life to walk unassisted. You liked the hospital bed—for a few days. Then you got bored with it and wanted your old, broken couch back. Susan and I had carried that out to the garage the day before you came home. 

As we began staying nights with you, I began working on the house in earnest. A lot of cleanup had happened before you were confined to a bed in the family room, and it continued. But I put up the dining room door facings that you had been “working on” for about three years. I straightened the French doors that you have never been able to level, because you could no longer concentrate on a problem for more than ten or fifteen minutes. I started finishing Charles’s old bedroom. From your bed, you gave me tips on hanging the closet doors—how to cut hinge seats was something the YouTube videos claimed was easy, but it was not, until you told me the easy way to do it. 

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$666 – An Ill Omen


I admit it, I love the original version of The Omen. I loved the sequel as well–Damien: Omen II. From the moment Damien appears, seen walking with fire before him, until Lee Grant shrieks his name devotedly as she dies at his hand, the story of the literal son of Satan hooks me.

But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about a Kickstarter I’m running that’s stuck at the number of the beast, the number of a man, the number Damien has tatooed on his scalp…

Six-Hundred and Sixty Six dollars.

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The Colonel’s Plan – Close One Wall, Open… the Same Wall

March 27th, 2018

Dear Daddy – 

Aside from doing the joints and painting the walls, the blue bathroom is finished. All the plumbing and electrical are in place and working. I had a little snag this weekend, as I finished the electrical work. I once again had it rubbed in my face to check line voltage before putting in drywall. I think I get it now. Hopefully I won’t have to be reminded a third time. 

You had left two wires dangling down from the attic, inside the wall on which the sinks were to be installed. I knew one was for the light fixture which you had already purchased way back in the day. What was the other? I assumed it was for an outlet.

Of course, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there was no room for an outlet over the sinks. You had purchased a mirror that literally took up the entire wall over the counter, from just below the 16” allowance for the light fixture, all the way down to the 32” standard height of the countertop. I guessed that you had been planning to shift the outlet either into the shower wall (sounds dangerous!) or over the toilet (not much better.)

I should have known you better. In fact, I do know you better. 

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Avoiding an Excess of Virtue – Lost Horizon

I’ve written about Lost Horizon before. The 1937 film is one of my favorite movies. Recently, more than one person has commented to me that they love the film too, and then they’ve ruminated on how adorably dashing Michael York was in the 1970s. 

Well, agreed, Michael York was adorably dashing in the 1970s. But Michael York, who was born in 1942, was understandably not involved in the 1937 Frank Capra adaptation of James Hilton’s bestseller, Lost Horizon. A lot of people my age were first exposed to the story as a result of Ross Hunter’s lamentable remake in 1973. That version of the film was a musical, which songs by the legendary Burt Bacharach. This film contributed little to his legend. Interestingly, though, the people my age who saw it—most likely its mid-70s TV airing on NBC’s The Big Event—seem to share the experience of not only thinking they saw the original, but of utterly (and thankfully) forgetting that the picture was a musical. I include myself in that number. I had no idea I had not seen Capra’s version until I saw Capra’s version. To be fair, the 1973 film is virtually a shot-by-shot remake of the original until the kidnapped party’s plane crashed in the Himalayas. No one sings until the party arrives at Shangri La, the lamasery in the hidden Valley of the Blue Moon, where the snows never fall, the chill mountain winds do not blow, and human beings live centuries without aging. (If you are a fan of the musical, take heart in the fact that I not only own the soundtrack album, I’ve actually listened to it.) 

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The Colonel’s Plan – The Thing Outside the Library Window – Part Two of Two

Sometime while I was in college, I believe, the dreaded metal cabinets arrived. These were, of course, surplus. They’re a blue-gray in color, with light gray doors and dusty orange shelves. Only they’re not shelves, they’re cross-bars designed so that wire brackets could be fastened into them, sitting upright. The cabinets were designed to hold reels of magnetic tape and were used for data storage in IBM Mainframe computers in days gone by. We have a few dozen of them, and I’m pretty sure we also have every. single. roll. of magnetic tape. that ever went in them. Well, we did. I’ve sent a lot of them to recycling now. But there are still hundreds in the basement.

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