Roger and me

I recently returned from a memorial service in Southern California that honored the life of my former Brother-in-Law Roger Nielson who unexpectedly passed away from a massive brain hemorrhage. In short, the service was a glorious celebration of a unique and adventurous human being who marched to his own drummer. The reception that followed featured an eclectic array of vintage (and slightly expired) wines, a full spread of delicious Mexican food and plenty hilarious “Roger stories” at the open microphone.

Roger Nielson was a brilliant geological scientist who loved collecting and consuming vintage wines, dining on complementary happy hour “meals”, hanging out with his buddies and neighbors and scoring a great bargain. He was a simple man who was not materialistic or vain. He enjoyed telling elaborate stories and owned several running and non-running automobiles. His passions involved anything mechanical.

As a child and teenager, I would spend my summers in Southern California visiting my older sister Suzanne (who was married to Roger from 1970 to 1986) from New Jersey. In the fall of 1976, my parents and I moved to Northern California and I continued to travel the short distance to Southern California to visit my sister and Roger.

The moments I spent hanging out with Roger were some of the most extraordinary adventures I have ever had in my life. They will never be duplicated or forgotten. In fact, many of them are vividly returning to my mind as I write this blog. Roger lived life to the fullest and loved company doing it.

Roger and I shared a profound passion for aviation. I remember how excited I became when Roger announced it was time to watch some planes land at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I can still see my sister’s eyes roll as we loaded the family into one of Roger’s beat up vehicles to make the long drive down to LAX.

Most people I know who enjoy plane watching probably do so from a reasonable distance. Not Roger. We would park underneath the landing path of one of the four main runways against the airport perimeter fence. This position offered the best possible place to experience maximum aircraft decibels and believe me back in the 1970s, passenger jets were extremely loud. Being one of the busiest airports in the United States, airliners were landing every ten minutes or so. During takeoffs, you could feel the hot exhaust from the engines while covering your ears from the deafening roar. It was better than being at a rock concert. Roger and I would be the only ones standing outside while the rest of the family hunkered down inside the car holding their ears.

I learned much about automobiles and engines hanging out with Roger. He loved to buy old beat up cars at a bargain and fix them up or cannibalize them for spare parts. For the first time in my life, I witnessed the inner workings of a car engine while learning what pistons, camshafts and valves do. I watched as Roger invented ways to repair cars that were extremely innovative and even patentable. I remember he once repaired the ignition system of a late 1960s Oldsmobile Toronado leaving two wires sticking out of the dashboard. Instead of turning a key to start the engine you had to touch two wire leads together with your fingers. As you could imagine, this operation was tricky as you could easily electrocute yourself starting the car.

Roger always drove below the speed limit because he did not want to apply un-necessary stress on his repaired or rebuilt car engines. I remember once being late for a flight back home to Northern California. Roger was (as usual) driving below the speed limit on Interstate 405. At the time, all I could remember thinking was how pissed off my mom was going to be if I missed my flight. Just before reaching the off-ramp to the Long Beach Airport, we were pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer. Instead of acknowledging responsibility for breaking the law, Roger calmly lectured the officer on the potential hazards of running older car engines at higher RPMs. This lecture did not faze the officer, however, as he finished writing the ticket and handed it though the open window. Fortunately, I made the flight home with minutes to spare.

The summer parties I remember ranged from elaborate dinner parties to grabbing lawn chairs and moving from driveway to driveway in the neighborhood. Each party featured plenty of wine, cheese, crackers and other goodies Roger would pack in a brown paper bag. Needless to say, sobriety was not an expected outcome at many of these neighborhood shindigs.

There are many more stories I could share. During the memorial reception, the open microphone session lasted more than two hours. When God created Roger Nielson, He destroyed the mold. There was simply nothing like being with this man. I sipped my first glass of wine, smoked my first cigar and started my first car engine all on his watch.

So now, I proudly raise my glass of aged Pinot Noir to you Roger Gibson Nielson. I thank you for all the memories and adventures we had together. I thank you for teaching me and others the value of being frugal and, most importantly, being yourself. I know you are now seated at a large table surrounded by all your good buddies who have passed before you. I also know you are enjoying a great glass of your favorite wine accompanied by some tasty goodies from Trader Joe’s. You will be greatly missed on this earth.

And if I’m ever at a dull party, I promise, I’ll always remember your famous line: “Relax, relax. The wine’s coming”.

Me (L) and Roger (R) at a car show.

Me (L) and Roger (R) at a car show.

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Straight to the heart

I vividly remember how angry I became during my son’s last annual Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting back in March of 2012. What aroused my anger was listening to my son’s 5th grade teacher argue with my wife on how it was pointless spending time doing homework because he wasn’t “getting it”. He then proceeded to wave random homework assignments in my wife’s face while saying: “look at this Mrs. Hovey, just look at this”.

This verbal exchange pissed me off so much; I had to quickly excuse myself from the meeting. Had I stayed, within seconds, I would have punched his lights out.

Parents with special need children also talk about “getting it” but in a different way. Granted, sometimes our special needs children don’t always “get” academic subjects or concepts as rapidly as typical children. Sometimes they may not understand them at all. At the same time, however, educators and others don’t always “get” our children either.

In my opinion, “getting” special needs children involves both the mind and the heart working together. In our present society, there is tremendous focus on the intellect and mind but not enough focus on heart and passion. It is obvious that educating one’s self about foreign subjects must begin with the mind. However, once you educate yourself about an emotional subject such as a disability and what children or adults can accomplish beyond the disability, the heart becomes aroused and engaged with the mind.

From an engaged heart, attitudes begin to change to the point where an individual relates to and appreciates a child or adult in a completely different manner. In the case of my son’s 5th grade teacher, I know he is an intelligent man capable of educating himself about Down syndrome. Had he done his due diligence prior to beginning the school year he might have acquired the necessary heart for teaching my son.  Then again, he might not have. While there are many teachers who welcome and appreciate the challenge of educating children with disabilities, some simply do not “get it”.

In my opinion, you cannot successfully assist or educate children with disabilities without having some sort of heart for it. Simply understanding raw data or possessing advanced degrees will not cut it. It requires a deep understanding that does not stop at the mind but continues straight to the heart.


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A flight to redemption

Yesterday I saw the movie Flight starring Denzel Washington. I have wanted to see this move for quite a while and was finally able to see it before it left the theatres. In short, the film is a fantastic story that was more than I expected. Best of all, it involved two of my favorite subject matters: airplanes and human redemption.

Denzel Washington plays a seasoned airline pilot (Captain Whip Whitaker) flying for a low budget southeast regional carrier named SouthJet (think ValuJet). The movie begins with Captain Whitaker piloting a routine flight between Orlando and Atlanta. Serving as his partner for the flight is a young and inexperienced co-pilot named Ken Evans. As the flight departs Orlando International Airport and ascends to its cursing altitude, it becomes caught up in a violent thunderstorm forcing the flight to divert from its original flight path to seek smoother weather.

Minutes before the final approach to Atlanta, the MD-80 aircraft experiences a complete flight control failure forcing the jet into an uncontrollable dive. With the co-pilot now completely freaked out, Whitaker calmly assumes control of the situation by executing a series of instinctual and unconventional maneuvers including applying additional thrust, increasing drag and rolling the aircraft completely upside down to correct the dive and achieve level flight. During this time, both engines blow out and cannot be extinguished or re-started. The scene in the cabin is horrifying with people falling out of their seats, vomiting and rolling around uncontrollably.

Without power and unable to locate an alternative airport, Whitaker indentifies an open field to crash land the jet. He rolls the aircraft right-side up and begins an aggressive accent towards the field. Seconds before impact, Whitaker realizes they are approaching the property of a Baptist church and severs the church steeple with the right wing before slamming into the ground.

The crash turns out to be miraculous. Out of 102 passengers, 96 survive the crash. Among the victims is stewardess Katerina Marquez who is killed when she leaves her seat to assist a young boy back into his seat before the crash landing. As the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) investigation gets underway, Whip Whitaker is declared a hero for a masterful crash landing and is praised by the media, friends and colleagues. Additionally, he discovers that other veteran pilots attempted to duplicate his maneuvers in a flight simulator. All failed to arrest the dive and ended up crashing nose first.

Seems like a heroic Captain Sully Sullenberger landing on the Hudson River story, right? There’s just one complication; Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic and drug addict.

Before flights, Whitaker consumes a variety of alcoholic beverages then snorts lines of cocaine to restore his senses and concentration prior to entering the cockpit. He summons the “services” of his buddy Harling Mays (brilliantly played by John Goodman) to dispense and administer his drugs. During the NTSB investigation, this addiction has now caught up with Whitaker with his drug test after the crash confirming he was indeed intoxicated prior to the Orlando to Atlanta journey.

Towards the end of the movie, Whitaker is called to testify before a formal NTSB investigation board in Atlanta. During the hearing, Whitaker’s heroic aircraft maneuvers are acknowledged by the lead NTSB investigator. The NTSB board concludes by rolling the MD-80 upside down and maintaing an inverted flight attitude, Whitaker arrested the dive and prevented the aircraft from slamming into the ground nose first.  The NTSB also uncovered the cause of the mechanical failure. This was due to a worn jackscrew assembly located in the tail section of the aircraft. The jackscrew controls the horizontal stabilizer flap that is responsible for the aircraft’s pitch (climbing and diving). Because the threads of the jackscrew were worn, the horizontal stabilizer flap became stuck in the down position thereby forcing the MD-80 aircraft into an uncontrollable dive.

Because of a technicality, Whitaker’s drug test becomes inadmissible. However, it is discovered there is another member of the flight crew with alcohol detected in their system. The person in question is the deceased stewardess Katerina Marquez. The NTSB lead investigator asks Whitaker if he believes that Marquez had been drinking before the flight. Whitaker evades the question and instead stares at the enlarged photo of Marquez before him.

At that moment, he hears the screams of sobriety echoing in his head. He knows he could walk away a glorified hero while pinning the alcohol problem on Marquez but he doesn’t. More importantly, he realizes she was also heroic in sacrificing her own life for the safety of a young passenger and should also be praised for her efforts. He cannot tarnish her good name.

In this moment of personal reflection, Whitaker decides he must finally become accountable for his reckless addictions. Whitaker then admits to the NTSB lead that he had also been drinking before the flight and is in fact an alcoholic. This shocking confession strips Whitaker of his wings, his career and sends him to federal prison.

The movie concludes with Whitaker lecturing his fellow inmates on the lessons he’s learned and admitting that the consequences suffered from his irresponsible actions were fair and liberating. In short, Whitaker’s fateful 52 minute flight turns out to be a flight to personal redemption.

The last scene of the move shows Whitaker visiting his estranged son. The son explains that he is now applying for colleges and needs Whitaker’s help in writing a letter addressing the topic: “A fascinating person you have never met”. His son then asks him “So, who are you?”

“That’s a great question” replies Whitaker.

The screen fades to black.

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The sweet smell of napalm

One of my favorite all-time films is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic Apocalypse Now. Towards the beginning of the movie there unfolds a spectacular air attack involving the use of napalm ordinance that incinerates several acres of dense jungle. After witnessing the devastating attack, a shirtless Robert Duvall (brilliantly playing the character Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore) squats down in the sand and delivers this unforgettable line to his soldiers (offensive words removed):

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. That smell, you know that gasoline smell. It smells like…….victory”.

Developed and used during World War II, the napalm bomb represents a liquid incendiary device used primarily as an anti-personnel weapon. Napalm bombs are composed of two gel-like chemicals: Naphthenic acid and Palmitic acid (forming the word na-palm) mixed with a volatile fuel. During the Vietnam War, napalm bombs were frequently dropped to clear thick jungles or destroy challenging targets.

Unlike conventional bombs, the napalm bomb represented a far more superior weapon to use during warfare. Because it is a liquid explosive, it can spread with tremendous efficiency to overwhelm and incinerate the intended target. Once the device canister ruptures against the earth, the bomb’s chemical agents instantaneously ignite. This chain reaction releases an unimaginable fiery hell with temperatures reaching 1,500-2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a devastating weapon that leaves nothing behind but scorched earth.

On November 16th, my wife and I found out that we had lost our due process hearing case (see blog post dated August 29th). While heartbreaking and devastating, we both knew we had the better case. Without a doubt, we had the better attorney and expert witnesses. Our case was solid and on task. The facts are now abundantly clear: the special education system within California is severely broken and must be repaired immediately. Our state system is managed by lame-duck administrators and overseen by puppet judges. Most due process cases are tilted towards school districts and not the parents. Unfortunately that’s just the way it rolls in California today.

Court cases are often compared to battles with each side manipulating legal weapons. In my honest opinion, our side had the more superior weapons. Their side clearly did not. We used napalm. They used conventional bombs. We should have won this battle but we didn’t. Fortunately, our biased case has now become public record for all to see. In addition, my wife has been waving a hardcopy of our case around for any interested attorneys to read. Our story needs to be told and heard. We are currently contemplating an appeal.

To further add to the drama, there has been much scandal and upheaval within our school district. Recently, a principal was convicted of using methamphetamines and a district administrator convicted of accounting fraud. In addition to this, our district superintendant abruptly resigned while two new board members were being installed.

Yesterday, my wife also found out that our school is implementing a program called Circle of Friends. This program will be implemented by an inclusion specialist that my wife knows personally and respects. All of this will be funded by the school district and will begin in January. Our school principal is on board with this program and wants our son Jeremy to succeed in his present classroom placement. We might have lost the battle but we might just be winning the war. I’m starting smell the aroma of napalm again.

I’m with you Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore; I also love the smell of napalm…every victorious whiff of it.


Robert Duvall smellin’ that napalm.

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Eatin’ good in the neighborhood

Imagine that it’s 7pm and you’re exhausted from a long day at the office. Your starving family is patiently waiting at home for a quality meal to be placed on the dinner table. Upon your arrival home, you reach into the freezer and remove a large Ziploc bag filled with a complete entrée meal. All you need to do is cook and serve. Within minutes, a nutritious meal is on the table for all to enjoy.

How is this possible?

Introducing Wildtree Herbs. Wildtree Herbs is a private company founded in 1996 that sells nutritious cooking ingredients, healthy meal solutions and recipes through a network of distributors to busy individuals with limited time to cook at home. With many families having both parents working outside the home, it has become more challenging to provide a healthy meal for the family to consume. As a solution, many parents simply surrender to the convenience of fast food or ordering a pizza.

Asian Crab Salad Wontons

Wildtree distributors are passionate about quality food, cooking and eating healthy meals. Products are primarily sold during festive “tasting parties” where samples are provided along with a glass of wine or refreshing margarita. In addition to “tasting parties”, distributors often organize “freezer bag workshop” parties where complete entrée meals are prepared from scratch then placed into large Ziploc bags.

Creamy Mustard Chicken Penne

Wildtree products contain no preservatives, additives or Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Cooking ingredients include: grape seed oils, culinary blends, mixes and sauces. Recipes include everything from gluten free pizzas to delicious soups and stews.

Grilled Shrimp and Sausage Kabobs

Since October of 2011, my wife has been a Wildtree distributor. If you would like to learn more about the company, order its products or create your own business opportunity with Wildtree, please visit my wife’s website here.

Garlic Basil Pesto

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Blacks in the south

In a few weeks, my wife and I will become deeply engaged in a continuing due process legal action against our son’s school district. After two marathon Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings resulting in an unacceptable classroom offering, we decided to legally challenge their placement decision. In turn, the school district also filed a due process action against us. Our son is a 12 year old with Down syndrome who currently attends inclusive 6th grade classes under a legal “stay put” order until our case is settled in court. We believe he belongs in a typical classroom exposed to regular academic curriculum with his peers. The district believes he belongs in an isolated classroom where he will learn functional academics or “life skills”.

In my opinion, many parents of children with Down syndrome today choosing and pursuing an inclusive academic plan for their children are now facing an emerging category of discrimination I will define as intellectual discrimination. Like other forms of discrimination, intellectual discrimination segregates children with mental disabilities into separate classroom environments away from other typical students. We believe special needs parents want and deserve choices for their children and should not have to fight in courtrooms to prevent them from being shoved into boxes.  A friend of ours who also has a son with Down syndrome summarized it best by proclaiming “we are blacks in the south”.

Since the 1970s, the United States government has made steady progress in addressing and resolving special education inequities with the passage of several landmark laws. Lately, however, we have boarded some bizarre time machine that has returned us to the year 1955. Upon our arrival in the state of Alabama, we witness the arrest of a 42 year old black woman named Rosa Parks who refused to move to the back of the bus. Instead of being asked to move to the back of the bus with the colored folk, we’re being asked to move to the other side of the campus with the disabled kids.  In my honest opinion, you can slice it and dice it any way you want. Discrimination is discrimination period.

So, we fight on with unwavering determination. We don’t yet have a national advocate fighting for us as the blacks did with Dr Martin Luther King but remain a persistent community of parent warriors.  Each of us is fighting our unique battles inside the arena of an enormous war to acquire what we desire for our children. We are educated, organized, pissed off and are not going quietly into the night.

Fasten your seat belts people. It’s game on.

Our son Jeremy on his first day of 6th grade.

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For all mankind

For the past 43 years, perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions Americans have asked one another is “Where were you on July 20th 1969 when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon?”

Few can argue that the Apollo 11 mission was one of the most courageous technical achievements America has ever undertaken. Equally remarkable was that the objective was accomplished months before the turn of the decade deadline President John F. Kennedy had established back in 1961.

Seconds before the Lunar Excursion Module (or LEM) touched down on the lunar surface, the mission was almost aborted because the decent had burned more fuel than anticipated. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carefully guided the LEM closer to the landing site, Houston began counting down the seconds before an abort. If the LEM were to run out of fuel, the delicate spacecraft would have slammed into the lunar surface killing Armstrong and Aldrin instantly. However, Commander Armstrong was a brilliant and experienced pilot and masterfully maneuvered the craft to a safe landing with fumes to spare.

The rest, as they say, is history.

After approximately three hours of exploration and experimentation on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin re-boarded the LEM (code named “Eagle”) and blasted off the landing base to rendezvous with the command module (code named “Columbia”) piloted by Michael Collins who was orbiting the Moon. They left behind an array of scientific instruments, an American flag, hundreds of footprints and a metal plaque mounted on the LEM landing base that read the following:

Here Men from the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind”.

The plaque was signed by the three Apollo 11 astronauts and President Richard M. Nixon.

In my opinion, what made the Apollo program special along with the NASA programs that preceded it was that the entire nation was behind them. After sending seven men into orbit in 1961 (the goal of Project Mercury) President Kennedy wanted to go farther by sending human beings to another planet within nine years. With the bitter memories of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin still fresh in our minds and a Cold War raging on, America finally realized that it needed to beat the Soviets this time. While the Soviet Union also undertook a manned lunar program, it ended with a series of heavy launch vehicle failures in 1976.

For me, the recent passing of Neil Armstrong at age 82 along with other heroic American astronauts marks the slow conclusion of an extraordinary era of achievement in America. The recent Space Shuttle “flybys” reminded me of a funeral. The modified NASA 747 Jumbo Jet acting as the pallbearer with the Shuttle Orbiter mounted on its back as the casket. Indeed, it was time to give America one last viewing before the Shuttles were “buried” in museums throughout the United States. It is now abundantly clear that manned space flight is no longer a national priority instead giving way to NASA partnerships with private industry.

When Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt blasted off the lunar surface on December 14th 1972, it was the last time a human being ever set foot on the surface of the Moon.

When Neil Armstrong was asked in 2005 during a 60 Minutes interview what it was like to walk on the surface of the Moon, Armstrong replied: “It’s an interesting place to be. I recommend it”

God speed Commander Neil Armstrong.

Neil Armstrong’s lunar footprint on July 20th 1969.

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