Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dave Cooper, Force of the Awesome

Sometime back, I saw a Facebook post lamenting the number of male protagonists who were little more than over-idealized versions of the author.  This isn’t any kind of new insight; I think it passed out of being a trope and crashed headlong into cliché about the time of Homer. 
I can’t deny that David Fraser, my main character and narrator, has some elements of wish fulfilment to him.  Mea culpa.  But, reading the original poster’s comment, my first reaction was, ‘Good thing I didn’t base him on Coop’.

Dave Cooper and I met at work ages ago and he was a regular player in the D&D campaigns I used to run, until he decided to go jaunting off to Antarctica for a season at McMurdo.  I still think he was crazy for doing it; bloody penguins don’t even play D&D…
These days, Coop is a fireman/EMT and a student of Brazilian Jujitsu.  I turned to him for advice on the aftermath of a car crash and procedures first responders would follow and wound up writing him into the scene we’d discussed. 
It hadn’t occurred to me until I read that line on Facebook, but… I’d really missed an opportunity by only using Coop as a walk-on character.  The guy has more story than that.    
Ladies and gentlemen, Dave Cooper.
Q: What motivated you to go to Antarctica?  Did you find (for lack of a better term) what you were looking for, either in the experience or in yourself?
For lack of a better term, I’d say I was looking for an adventure.  I was at a good point in my life, both professionally and romantically, but I was looking for something more.  I saw an opportunity to do something unique, and maybe a little crazy, and went for it.  I did learn a lot while I was down there.  The people I met certainly opened my eyes up to the world going on outside my comfort zone.  Travelling through Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific on the way back to the states gave me a great perspective on the world outside of the U.S.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about daily life in Antarctica?
Life at McMurdo was certainly different than what you might believe initially.  It had a lot of comforts that you might not expect.  There was a couple of bars, a coffee house, two lane bowling alley, bouldering cave.  They made every effort to find ways to keep you from going stir crazy. 

Coop at McMurdo
Q: You know I have to use the picture of you posing on the firetruck – it’s almost a defining example of a ‘go forth and be awesome’ moment.  Was there anything you wanted to do but weren’t able to get to while you were there? 
I should answer this one by explaining the picture.  In the early-mid 80’s (don’t quote me on the date), the US Men’s Soccer Team got in a little trouble for taking a team picture wearing just Reeboks and a strategically placed soccer ball.  I somehow got it in my head that I wanted to do the same thing.  New Years Eve 2002 I stripped down and climbed onto one of the ARFF (Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting) rigs for the picture, wearing just bunker boots and a helmet. 
As for regrets, I would have liked to be able to make it to the South Pole.  There were not many opportunities to make it there while I was working.  There were some short daytrips that were offered periodically o get you a change in scenery.  We even did the “Happy Camper” school, where you learn cold weather survival skills and got to camp out in a snow mound on the Ross Ice Shelf. (Which was a lot more fun than it sounds!)
Q: If you had your pick of ‘crazy places to work’ and ‘crazy jobs’ (however you define those terms), where would you go and what would you do?
I can always say I’d like to be an astronaut or an NFL player if I wanted to go for the obvious, but I’ve got to say that I’ve got the job that I want, and it’s plenty crazy at times. 

Q: What drew you to the fire\EMS services?
I worked at a retirement accounts company for 5 years out of school because I thought that was what you were “supposed to do”.  I was never really happy and knew I wanted to do something else.  One day I dove up on a pretty major car accident and got out to help, but didn’t know what to do.  The next semester I went into EMT school and I’ve been addicted since.  There are no many jobs where you can actively make a difference in people’s lives every day.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I’d have to say that it’s making a difference in people’s lives.  We don’t often get a chance to truly step in and save someone’s life, but we touch people’s lives every day.  They call us when they’re at their worst and we have to come into whatever situation they’ve got and make it better.  Firefighters get a lot of respect from the public for the job we do and I try every day to earn that respect.
Q: Most people run away from fires and other dangerous situations.  Your job is to run towards them.  How do you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to do that?
I think that most people run from a situation not because they’re “afraid” but because they can’t process the information and rationalize what’s going on around them.  We train for all sorts of emergencies (fires, medical calls, hazardous materials incidents. . .).  When a problem comes up it’s more like a puzzle that we need to solve.  We identify the problem, make a plan and then implement the plan.  It’s just another day at the office.
Q: How do you respond when political leaders or members of the public refer to you and other first responders as heroes?
I think anyone on the job would say that we just dismiss it.  We’re just doing our job.  Just because it comes to the forefront in a time of crisis doesn’t mean that there aren’t thousands of first responder out there every day, just doing what we do.
Q: What is the strangest thing you’ve seen as a first responder?
That’s a tough one.  Between working in the Emergency Department of an area hospital, time on an ambulance and almost 15 years on the fire department I’ve seen some interesting sights.  Recently we were responding to an early morning grass fire, as we pulled up I said something I never thought I would have to, “Are those guys wearing Ghostbusters outfits?” Sure enough, there were three teenagers in Ghostbusters jumpsuits putting out the fire with fire extinguishers.  Every day brings a new story and a new cast of characters.  I heard a story about a salty old firefighter who was giving a presentation to a class of small kids.  The guy told them that he had been on every type of call there is.  Then one of the kids put his hand up and asked if he’d ever been on a shark attack. [crickets]  Just when you think you’ve seen it all. . .  
Q: How has your study of martial arts changed you?
I think it brings me a lot of focus.  It’s easy to get caught up in the daily stress of life.  When you can find a productive outlet for that stress it makes life’s bumps and bruises easier to cope with.  It also gives you a lot of perspective on life and what’s important.  After a handful of kickboxing fights I found that day to day stressors were not as important.  When you prove to yourself that you can handle that, you can handle anything.
“After fighting, everything in your life got the volume turned down.”  --Fight Club
Q: What attracted you to study these specific fighting styles? Are there others you’d like to study if given the opportunity?
I’ve studied many different styles over the years.  I’ve studied Kenpo, Kuntao Silat, Karate, Muay Thai, American Kickboxing, Traditional Jiu Jitsu and most recently Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. I have found my love in BJJ.  The art is much more cerebral than how it may seem from the outside.  Being a big, strong guy I’ve always been able to muscle my way through other arts.  In BJJ I was humbled by an instructor who was literally half my size.  I love the flexibility and adaptive nature of the art.  Each person is able to find their own path on heir “journey” and find what works for them.  It’s not a cookie cutter approach.
In retrospect, I would have liked to study more Japanese Jiu Jitsu or another art that has more of a focus on weapons.  There’s nothing the ladies love more than a guy with mad bo staff skills.
Q: What are the top three items on your ‘bucket list’? Bull-leaping, perhaps, or playing in the Klingon Rollerball league?
Being a fan of good beer, I want to hit every brewery in Colorado.  I’d also like to make it to all seven continents.  Who knows what else, maybe go paragliding.

Q: What is the secret to being a force of the awesome?
I wouldn’t claim that I know the secret to being a force of the awesome but I will say that when I stopped worrying about what others thought or expected of me and started living the life I felt I was meant to live, I was a much happier and successful person. 
You’ve gotta pick yourself up by the bootstraps.  No ones gonna help you out when you fall.  You’ve gotta find a way out of your problems.  When you’re broke and you’re backed up against the wall.  If you sleep on your only chances, they’ll never come around again.  So dig deep and swing for the fences, you never know it might work out in the end.”  --Dropkick Murphys

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Writerly Ride-Alongs

If there’s any chance at all the story you’re writing will involve a police officer at some point, and you aren’t yourself a cop, do your story a favor: sign up for a few ride-alongs.  Even a high fantasy tale can benefit; your towns do have city guards, right?
If you’ve never heard of ride-alongs, they are exactly what they sound like: You go out with a police officer for part of their shift, usually around four hours, and what happens, happens.  Sometimes you get a lot of coffee, scenery, and conversation; sometimes you spend half the day staring at the walls of the station while your officer fills out the mountain of paperwork that goes with each arrest.  Sometimes, there’s a lot of screaming and crying.
I’ve done six ride-alongs with five different departments, mostly while I was getting my Criminal Justice degree and serving as a volunteer Victim Advocate.  The procedure for all of them was essentially the same: call the non-emergency line for the department you’re interested in and find out when the patrol division can work you in.  Expect a background check (you did get that warrant taken care of, right?) and a stack of disclaimers to sign.
The department will likely ask you to dress at least business casual.  Don’t wear red.  That’s not a Star Trek reference; it’s because red clothes can cause problems for people who have just been in traumatic situations.  If you’re going at the beginning of a shift, try to show up half an hour or so early.  Chances are you’ll get to sit in on the patrol briefing and be introduced to the other officers on the shift.  Once you meet your officer, do exactly as they say until the ride is over.
Yes, you can get shot doing one of these.  You are assuming the risk, however small it might be.  One of my officers took his seatbelt off every time we turned in to certain apartment complexes.  “If they start shooting at the car, jump out the door and roll away.  Try to hide with your head between the front wheels of two cars-that way you have an engine block on both sides to soak up the bullets.”  Charming notion ten minutes into the first hour. 
Cops have a strange sense of humor, and they love telling war stories.  Especially ones involving bugs.  Bugs covering the floor, bugs on the food in the refrigerator, roaches falling out of the ceiling, coming out of a welfare check covered in scabies-every cop I rode with had at least two or three stories about bugs.  Fabulous resource for terrifying/horrifying your readers.
The most active ride I did was 6-10pm on a Friday in Denver’s District 2.  This was a two-officer car, so I spent most of it locked in the back seat.  We hadn’t even finished the shift briefing when we got called to respond to a pursuit.
The back seat didn’t have shoulder restraints, just a lap belt and nothing to hang on to.  The chase only lasted four minutes, but it seemed far longer.  Excitement? Yes!  Also terror, since we were tearing through a residential area.  I was also feeling some intense anger at the person who was running, because of the danger they posed to everyone on the streets and in the chase..
The suspects finally pulled over and surrendered.  End result: two arrests, no injuries or property damage, and a big bag of soap chips taken into evidence.  Ivory soap won’t get you high, but it was being sold as crack, which is just as illegal.  Who knows?  If they’d sold the soap to the wrong person, their night might have ended very badly indeed.
It took an hour to process the evidence and transport it to the lockup facility in downtown Denver.  Back in service, we did three noise warnings at different parties, warned a prostitute away from a hotel, and stopped at a Greek place for dinner.  The owner didn’t charge us, because cops eat free at his place.  I told him I was a civilian and insisted he let me pay for my food.
That small gesture made a big difference in the rest of the night.  Both officers opened up, telling all manner of anecdotes about the hotels, pawnshops, and apartment buildings we came across.  We broke up two more parties, wrote a bunch of speeding tickets, and chased the same prostitute away from a convenience store.
Our last call was for a domestic, resulting in the arrest of a combative gentleman who’d been smoking crack.  Transporting him was the only time I got to ride in the front of the cruiser.
Back at the station, my last half-hour was spent listening to more stories while my officers did their arrest paperwork.  Another officer arrived to do his booking papers as well.  He looked at me and said, “Who’s this guy?”
My driver said, “He’s our ride-along. He’s OK.”                     
Her partner nodded.  “Good ride.”
The new officer nodded.  “Alright then.”  He introduced himself and said, “Ask for me if you ever want to do an eight to midnight.  We’ll have some real fun.”
I never took him up on it, but I bet some great stories would have come out of it. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Razing Arizona

The following is a true story, offered here as an introduction to myself and my view of the world.  Spoiler alert: the good state and citizens of Arizona were not harmed in the creation of this blog entry.
*  *  *

I never meant to be investigated as a domestic terrorist.  I just wanted to run a D&D game.
I had been running campaigns set in a homebrew world for about ten years, and I was getting a little burned out on it and on traditional fantasy games in general.  I decided that I needed to work on something new to get my creative juices flowing again.  I started thinking about creating a new campaign world, but ran into an issue right off: I could not find a map I liked.
I spent hours tweaking various fractal world generators, to no avail.  I tried freehand and gave up because everything I drew somehow looked like a random number of amorous ducks playing with oil paints.  Finally, I decided to use (drum roll!) good old Earth.  OK, so, it’s a parallel Earth.  This was good, I could live with it.  Less time mapping, more time actually creating, right?
Wrong.  Now I had to start naming things.  Historical references, random name generators, searches through the atlases of several different countries.  Everything sounded terrible.  I gave up, convinced that I’d burned out as a GM.  My creative engine was running like a ’72 Pinto that was up on blocks.  I shelved the whole project.  Then, a few days later, I was setting up a printer in one of the offices I supported and I found out that the woman getting the printer was the web crafter for the local SCA barony.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, lights started coming on.  Generators began spinning, electricity began arcing up a Jacob’s ladder, and someone put on the theme from Superman.  My mind was racing the rest of the day.  Fortunately, I work in IT, so it was really easy to look busy and not actually be working on anything for the rest of the day.  By the time I went home, I had most of a campaign planned.  The game would take place in a world where the SCA kingdoms really were kingdoms – a high-fantasy world of chivalry and service. 
Once I got home, I sat down to work on my ideas.  For background music, I picked Leslie Fish’s ‘Serious Steel’ CD.  It’s a collection of SCA songs, with a couple done by Joe Bethancourt.  The first song (the title track) is one I’d heard before, and had always considered fairly amusing.  It describes what happens when a nuclear war breaks out while the SCA is holding the Pennsic war – a two-week long event that attracts between 10 and 15,000 people.  In the song, the SCA members become a force for good, an army of Might for Right in a dark and lawless time.  The last verse hooked my attention:
How can we not take up the steel, for to serve our people’s need?
How can we leave our land to fall to any bandit’s greed?
We have the skills to save our folk from whatever evil thrives,
Admit the truth: this is the chance we’ve hoped for all our lives!
Not a high-fantasy game. 
A post-apocalyptic game, using D&D rules.
The Road Warrior with magic.  Orcs with Mohawks on motorcycles.  Drow babes in Hooters tank tops and leather chaps!
I was definitely in the groove.  Several days later, I had the first story arcs planned and a good beginning hook.  The players would begin as members of the SCA, going to Phoenix for the Estrella War.  The game would begin with them watching the collapse of society and the outbreak of magic around the world.  Now, I needed maps.  I headed for a nearby major chain bookstore and snagged two topographic map books – the really good ones – of Arizona for me to use, a road map and vacation guide for the players to use, detail maps of Phoenix and Flagstaff, and a nice little “what to see” tourist guide for the Phoenix area.  I headed for the cashier, gleefully plotting the utter ruination of the Valley of the Sun.
“Going on a trip?” the clerk asked as she rang me up.
“No, I’m going to blow it up.”
She looked at me with eyes so large I thought she was about to turn into a Pokemon.  Woops.
“Heh, kidding!  Really, they’re for a role-playing game I’m running.”  I signed my credit card receipt and tried to look casual as I left.  I fretted for a few days, but no police came to knock on my door, so I relaxed.  We ran the first game and it was a success, especially President Jesse Ventura turning into a dwarf during a live press conference.
The following week, I was at my desk surfing, err, finishing up a ticket, when the receptionist called me.  I had visitors, could I please come up front?  I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I asked who they were with.
The FBI.
Now, one of my co-workers was applying to the Secret Service and I knew that I was down as a reference for her.  So, off I went, mentally reviewing what I would say to best depict her as a person well-qualified for a position of public trust.  I greeted the gentlemen, checked their IDs (FBI don’t have badges) and showed them to an empty conference room.
“So, how may I help you?”
“About two weeks ago, did you make a public statement threatening mayhem or violence towards the people or state of Arizona?”
I couldn’t help it.  I started laughing.  Not quietly and politely, either.  The VP of HR heard me and went to ask the receptionist what was happening in the conference room.  The phrase “FBI” really got her attention.
Back in the conference room, neither agent appeared to be reassured by my response.  The senior agent waited for me to catch my breath and said, “Sir, I can assure you that we are not taking this statement lightly and we do not consider it cause for amusement.  We are assigned to the special task force on domestic terrorism and you are the subject of a serious inquiry.  Now, could you please answer the question?”
I nodded.  “Yes, I did say I was going to blow it up.  I’m sorry, I was feeling jaunty and I made a smart-ass remark.  I was buying the maps for a role-playing game I’m running.  I do not now nor have I ever harbored ill intentions towards the people of Arizona.”  The senior agent smirked just a little when I said ‘role-playing game’.  He knew what they were.  The junior agent was looking at me like a pit bull with colic, though.  I continued, “This is a post-apocalyptic game set in Arizona and the desert southwest, but that’s all it is.”  I focused on the junior agent.  “Ever play cops & robbers when you were a kid, or go to a murder mystery dinner theater?  Same thing, only instead of saying ‘bang, you’re dead’ it’s ‘bang, roll some dice to see if you hit and how much damage you do’.”
The VP of HR came in at that point and the senior agent reassured her that all was well.  At that point, he relaxed and told me what was going on.  Yes, as I had assumed, the clerk at the store told her manager what I had said.  He called the FBI and gave them my name & credit card number.  From that, they got my current employer (I think the IRS was involved) and found out that my office was just a few blocks from theirs and that they were going to drive right past it on their way to lunch.  Even though they thought the report was probably a false alarm, they decided to drop in on me ‘just in case’.
I told them – truthfully and seriously – that I was glad that they had done so.  I’m just a goofball gamer who was feeling jaunty and said something stupid.  I’d rather see them investigate a hundred people who did something innocent but stupid than have them miss one person who was not so innocent.  They thanked me for my time, and headed off to lunch.
My campaign ran for about five years, thankfully without any other law enforcement incidents.  I never had any repercussions from that visit, either, until I had to apply for a DOD security clearance.  A very nice lady from the Office of Personnel Management came to interview me as part of my background check.  Part way through the interview, she asked me, “Have you ever done anything that would give people cause to question your fitness for a position of public trust?”
“Does being reported as a possible domestic terrorist and getting questioned by the FBI count?”
Maybe she gave me points for being jaunty.  I got the clearance.